Hearing the news from South Africa twenty years ago today, we knew that Nelson Mandela's release from prison was historic. If it was the turning of the tide against apartheid, it was a process that had already started in a number of ways.
You could tell that change was happening and that important things were imminent when we visited South Africa in the winter of 1989/1990, just weeks before Mandela's release (image: 1990 South African stamps, via Namib Stamps, "Africa's premier stamp site").
Our son and daughter, just kids when we traveled across the Indian Ocean from multiracial Mauritius on a visit to South Africa, now incredulously remind us that we actually went there while apartheid was still in effect. Shocking, for liberals like ourselves, who listened regularly to Johnny Clegg's songs of protest, including his ode to the imprisoned Mandela, Asimbonanga. I had even organized an alternate medevac site on French Réunion for US diplomats, so that black officials would not have to undergo the humiliation of being labeled "honorary whites" if flown to South Africa.
And yet, we went to what was then the RSA - the Republic of South Africa, as it was then called - under white rule. There's no way around that.
But the South Africa we experienced was already in pre-liberation mode. Staying at a timeshare near Kruger National Park, we chatted with black African guests, who seemed to take it as a matter of course that they were able to stay at what had previously been a whites-only resort. Later, when we took the famous Blue Train from Pretoria to Cape Town, its "international" status meant that African passengers could also climb aboard - for the price of a pretty hefty ticket.
In Cape Town, I had lunch at the Rotary Club, which - in a city with 75% non-white population - had all of one "coloured" member. But it was a start.
For anyone who takes for granted the incredible feat that was the Mandela-led peaceful transition after his release from Robben Island - his one-man rebranding of a country - listen to his fellow former prisoner Ahmed Kathrada on the BBC's "Witness" program (10 minute podcast). In other, less steady hands, South Africa may have had quite a different break from the past.
Johnny Clegg saw that, when he wrote the lines to "Asimbonanga" in the late Eighties:
Oh the sea is cold and the sky is grey
Look across the island into the bay
We are all islands till comes the day
We cross the burning water
A seagull wings across the sea
Broken silence is what I dream
Who has the words to close the distance
Between you and me
No one other than Mandela could have closed that distance.