Behind Bars: Reflections on Mandela


I don’t remember the moment when Nelson Mandela was freed from prison, but I do remember exactly when he was elected president.  I was in middle school, and my social studies teacher tried her best to convey what a significant moment that was.  She talked to us about Apartheid, and how this man spent twenty-seven years in prison fighting against an oppressor.  She also explained the significance of him being the first black president and why this was considered the first free election in the country.  By the time I moved to South Africa in 2007, Mandela had been out of jail for seventeen years, and the country was fourteen years out of Apartheid.  So, I should have been moving to a free, racially and economically harmonious country, right?  Why then, did the whole country live behind bars?

If I were to come up with a single theme that described my two and a half years living in South Africa, one that would stand out would be, “behind bars.”  In a country with such a high crime rate, they’ve created a burglar bar culture that sticks out to an ex-pat looking around me from the inside.  Beautiful jacaranda trees line the streets of Pretoria, but they are juxtaposed by an eerie calm as rows and rows of house sit hidden behind gates, bars, barbed wire fences and guard dogs.  I was always looking to see if anyone was going to dig a moat around their house.  Sadly, the bars are a need to combat crime, but they also mirrored figurative bars that keep out ides, cultural exchange and an empathetic understanding of one another.

The juxtaposition of the third “free” election campaign posters being promoted on burglar bars.

When I had the opportunity to go to Robben Island, and see where Mandela was held prisoner for nearly three decades, I was overwhelmed with how surreal it was so see something, that prior to now, was only an idea, a school lesson and an iconic point of intellectual discussion.  But there I was, behind bars on Robben Island some seventeen years after Mandela was freed.  While being given a tour, it was hard to escape one recurring theme that the local guide kept impressing upon us.  The word “fear.”  He reminded us that Mandela was held prisoner for opposing a regime that institutionalized racism and oppression.  Fear, on the part of the oppressor, kept him behind bars.  Fear, is what keeps the entire country living behind bars.  Fear seemed to fuel the country’s beating pulse.

The transformation of South Africa from Mandela’s release to the present has been a monumental one.  In a few shorts years, Mandela was released from prison, Apartheid was outlawed, the country held its first free elections and a black leader was elected.  But as the euphoria from those massive changes wore off, what we’re left with is a country that is still figuratively and literally living behind bars.  In spite of all those great changes, there are still racial tensions, economic inequality, impoverished schools and crime so high that people literally imprison themselves in their own homes.

As the anniversary of Mandela’s release approaches, what I am reminded of is that South Africa, and the world as a whole, has a long way to go in the struggle for racial equality and Mandela was one man among millions who sacrificed in that struggle.  I prefer to see this upcoming anniversary as a talking point to promote racial dialogue.  We are often afraid to engage in these types of discussions for fear of offending someone, for fear of confronting our own roles in the issue or even fear of a change in status quo.

As one man’s life behind the literal bars of Afrikaner justice came to an end, what continues is still a nation living behind the figurative bars of racism, crime, poverty and yes, even actual burglar bars.

My middle school students – part of the freedom generation.

As always, change is slow.  It’s also a process, not an event.  Since Mandela’s passing, I’ve struggled to look back on my time in South Africa and look for hope.  Since I taught middle school there fourteen years after Apartheid, I had the unique experience of teaching the generation of kids that were born in 1994; the freedom generation.  I saw hope in them as they were the generation that struggled and grappled with their country’s past legacy and future possibilities.  A motto strewn all over the country was: Proudly South African.  The pride woven into the new generation is the hope I see as they are committed to continuing the process of change.  That freedom generation turns twenty this year, and as they enter adulthood, I can only hope and pray that the legacy of Mandela, and the millions just like him, continue to inspire the proud nation to endure the arduous fight to peruse a life untamed by iron bars.


About the Author: Stefanie DeLeo is a published playwright/author and middle school Social Studies teacher. She lived and worked in South Africa for two and a half years with the Peace Corps, where she taught English, Social Studies and Drama. She has a Master’s Degree from New York University in Educational Theatre. Connect with Stefanie on her facebook page and on twitter @stefaniedeleo.