Remembering Freedom

From: Witness: A Lawyer's Journey from Litigation to Liberation by Eric Sirotkin

Bophuthatswana, South Africa 27 April 1994

Three years later freedom came at midnight to South Africa. I've returned as an International Election Monitor and I’m shivering as a cold wind gusts across my face and through the Mmbatho Plaza. Two soldiers, one black and one white, march toward the flag posts. The gathering of mostly black homeland residents watches transfixed as the two flags of the formerly fragmented South Africa are lowered, and the new united flag rises toward the sky. The words Seamus Heaney wrote to celebrate Mandela's release from prison runs through my head that : "…once in a lifetime, the longed-for tidal wave of justice can rise up, and hope and history rhyme."

With fists raised to the sky we sing the new unified national anthem that includes Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika - God Bless Africa – with its century old motto of ‘Wisdom, unity and peace.’ At that very moment the all-white Parliament and the all-black homeland are dissolved. As the last note of the new anthem sounds, bursts of shouts and whistles accompany spontaneous dancing. People orchestrate their own rhythmic celebration of freedom. Strangers embrace and we dance with each other. Individuals coalesce into a community. It’s an explosion of joy.

The pain that so many endured made this transformation possible. It vindicates the struggle against seemingly insurmountable odds, and if the walls of separation in South Africa could be brought down, I'm feeling anything is possible. Whether black or white, Apartheid’s chains had been wrapped around everyone’s spirit, but tonight the people’s spirits are soaring together. We’re celebrating the end of apartheid, but it’s feeling like a regeneration of my own heart. We all feel linked to one another and to the star-drenched sky above. Here at the tip of Africa a palpable feeling of unity rose like the harvest moon, illuminating new possibilities and hope for our fractured world.

Apartheid had separated more than racial differences. It suppressed something innate - a connection with one another. What I experienced in South Africa was an entirely new way of being and it felt contagious, exhilarating and frightening. I felt like I was undergoing an emotional transfusion. What was happening to me, and what would it mean? I realized I would have to change my life, my work and relationships forever.

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