Local Politics

Friday, Dec 06 2013 05:36 PM

Mandela's death strikes home in Kern

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    By AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin

    In this file photo from Monday Aug. 6, 2012, former president of South Africa Nelson Mandela, then 94, is seen at his home in Qunu, South Africa during a visit from U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. South Africa's president says on Thursday, Dec. 5, 2013, that Mandela has died. He was 95.

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BY STEVEN MAYER Californian staff writer smayer@bakersfield.com

Mandela was coming to California!

It was late spring 1990, and word was spreading through Bakersfield's black community that South African anti-apartheid activist and revolutionary Nelson Mandela was planning to speak before tens of thousands at the Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles -- just two hours away.

Gerri Spencer, a local hair stylist turned administrator, activist and volunteer, was helping organize a bus trip to ferry interested Kern County residents down south to the event.

"We thought one bus would do," she recalled Friday. "But one became two and two became three."

"People really needed to hear him," she remembered. "Someone like him who had been through difficult things."

Memories of that day and Mandela's later ascension to the presidency of South Africa and to an even loftier place on the world stage were on Spencer's mind and the minds of countless others following the news of the 95-year-old leader's death on Thursday.

The Rev. Ralph Anthony, assistant pastor at St. Peter Restoration Community Christian Ministries in east Bakersfield, remembers railing against South Africa's brutal and repressive Apartheid system in the years before Mandela and others helped bring it to an end.

There's little doubt in his mind, Anthony said, that Mandela will be the subject of multiple sermons in churches in Bakersfield and across the country on Sunday.

"He epitomizes the consciousness we need to cultivate as a people created of God to work for the betterment of all mankind," the 73-year-old said.

Comparing Madela with American civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., Anthony said he was astounded by how Mandela suffered 27 years of imprisonment, yet somehow emerged with a mindset based on the principles of forgiveness, reconciliation, freedom and justice.

Rather than creating divisions, Mandela was about bringing people together, he said.

Carlien Worley, 35, a senior systems analyst at The Californian, was born and raised in South Africa, and lived through the transition from Apartheid to integration and democratic rule.

She married a Bakersfield resident and moved to the valley in 2006.

"When you leave your home, your memories become a snapshot of that time," she said. And Mandela's presence was part of that snapshot, so the news of his death, while not unexpected, was nevertheless "jarring."

"My first response was sadness," she said Friday.

A lot of white South Africans, including her parents, were in opposition to the changes advocated by Mandela and others.

"White South African culture is very conservative, very formal," Worley said. Many were afraid of change, afraid of the unknown.

Worley was 12 when Mandela was released from prison. When she was about 16, a school field trip placed her by happenstance at the back of a huge gathering of black South Africans in Pretoria listening to a speech by Mandela himself.

She was so far away from the charismatic figure, she didn't immediately feel included in the event. And yet it affected her.

"I do remember there was a positive feeling coming from the crowd," she recalled. "And I remember being impressed by how articulate and measured his speech was."

By the end of Mandela's term as president years later, Worley's parents had changed their minds -- in large part because of Mandela's humility, integrity and inclusiveness.

Of course, Mandela had flaws. He was human, after all, Worley said. But there seemed to be an innate goodness in the man.

"Personally, I would have loved it if he had been president a few years longer," Worley said.

Even as Gerri Spencer listened as Mandela charmed that crowd of 90,000 more than two decades ago at the L.A. Coliseum, a much younger resident of Bakersfield was there, too.

"I was 4 years old when my mother took me to L.A. to see Nelson Mandela," said Will Chandler, a Bakersfield High graduate now attending Morehouse College, a historically black college in Atlanta.

Chandler, now 27, was initially saddened by Mandela's death. But the South African leader's legacy lives on, Chandler said.

"When I think of Nelson Mandela, I think of justice, of someone who fought for equality and dedicated his life to spreading that message."

Mandela's willingness to stand against injustice, at great personal risk -- and the fact that he suffered greatly for his beliefs without holding onto the bitter remnants of that suffering, was a common theme for those who spoke about him Friday.

"I thought he had an awesome smile," Spenser said. "It just made you feel good inside."

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