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ISKCON’s Journey Through Apartheid With Mandela - A Tribute to Nelson Rohihlalha Mandela (1918-2013) Father of the South African Nation

By: for ISKCON News on Dec. 6, 2013

Nelson Mandela with Champakalata Dasi

As the world joins the South African nation in mourning the death of anti-apartheid struggle hero and South Africa’s first democratically elected State President, Nelson R. Mandela, devotees of ISKCON in South African cherish the wonderful memories of his visits to the Sri Sri Radha Radhanatha Temple and a Food For Life festival hosted by them as well as recount ISKCON’s journey through apartheid and into democracy.

 As an Indian passport holder, Srila Prabhupada’s passport was endorsed by the Indian government “Not valid for travel to South Africa.”  This was India’s way of expressing a sanction against the South African government of the day.  

So, when Srila Prabhupada arrived at the then Louis Botha airport in Durban in October 1975 on his first and what later became his only trip to South Africa, he did so on the basis of what was meant to be a transit stop in Durban.  Earlier he had sent devotees to South Africa and they had begun preaching amongst the Indian community (descendants of Indian indentured labourers who were brought to South Africa during British rule of the country).

The seeds of Krishna consciousness had been planted but preaching in the apartheid era had its challenges.  The Group Areas Act defined residential areas based on ones race.  Hence, the first European devotees who arrived South African were often pursued by the police for residing in “Indian” areas and preaching to the other race groups was a huge risk.  Inter-racial marriages were not permitted.  Separate schools, busses, coaches in trains, beaches were the order of the day.  Skilled and professional work was reserved for “Whites” only.

The apartheid ideology was a total contradiction to the philosophy of Bhagavad-Gita As It Is wherein we learn that we are not these bodies but spirit souls, equal to one another and that these bodies (male or female; White, Black, Coloured or Indian) are mere garments that are shed at the time of death and that the soul which is eternal, transmigrates at the time of death.

When Mandela who was also affectionately known as Madiba (by his clan name) or Tata (father) was released after 27 of imprisonment for politically motivated crimes, the minority groups in the country were gripped in fear that there will be a violent overthrowing of the current government.  However, Mandela forgave his oppressors and encouraged everyone to do the same.  He chartered the way for democracy through a series of efforts in bringing about peace and reconciliation. 

In 1992, in his capacity as the Chairman of the African National Congress (ANC), Mandela visited ISKCON’s iconic Sri Sri Radha Radhanath Temple of Understanding in Chatsworth near Durban.  Together with other ANC leaders, he toured the temple and joined ISKCON leaders for a sumptuous luncheon at Govinda’s restaurant where they spoke about the teachings of Bhagavad Gita and the various humanitarian activities that ISKCON was engaged in. 

On 27th April 1994 South Africans of all races went to the polls to cast their votes in the first ever democratic elections.  The ANC became the ruling party with Mandela leading the country as its State President.  Six months later on 6th November 1994 (on the occasion of the celebration of Diwali) together with a large entourage of government ministers and ambassadors, President Mandela spent 3 hours at the ISKCON temple once again.  However, this time it was a public event hosted by ISKCON and thousands of locals thronged to hear the President’s official Diwali address to the community.  In his speech which was in the wake of the assassination of Chris Hani, a political leader, President Mandela emphasised the need for a peaceful transition and social harmony.  President Mandela was introduced to Bhakti Tirtha Swami Maharaja and was most impressed by him to the extent that he led the crowd in a standing ovation after Maharaja delivered his speech.

Once again, President Mandela together with his entourage, including Members of Parliament and American Consul General Pamela Bridgewater, joined ISKCON leaders at Govinda's Restaurant for a meal, whereafter, devotees presented copies of the book “Science of Self-Realization” to the President and everyone in his group.

This was the first official visit by a South African President to a Hare Krishna temple.

Then on 23rd April 1997, a most momentous event in the history of ISKCON worldwide took place at the Kings Park Soccer Stadium in Durban.  Hosted by Food For Life, “The Festival for the Children of the Rainbow Nation,” drew together 50,000 school goers, educators, Members of Parliament, King Goodwill Zwelethini (King of the Zulu nation) and President Mandela, as well as a huge contingency of international and national media. 

Devotees worked tirelessly under the leadership of Indradyumna Swami and Kapil Deva dasa (Food For Life co-ordinator).  The event required extensive organising as meal packs of breyani, dhall and juice were provided for the children who were entertained with a line-up of cultural entertainment featuring various genres of music, dances and activities performed by famous local performers, television personalities and the children themselves.  It was a treat like no other! 

President Mandela with Indradyumna Swami

President Mandela enjoyed himself so much so that he cancelled the rest of his day’s engagements and instead extended his stay at the festival which lasted more than 5 hours.  He received a raucous welcome led by a praise singer and school children on stage, singing struggle songs, which in true Madiba style he jived to.  The Mercury newspaper had a huge spread on the front page the next morning quoting the President as saying that it was the happiest day of his life!

Here’s Mandela’s speech from that historic occasion:

Speech by President Mandela at the Food for life Festival (Festival for the Children of the Rainbow Nation)

23 April 1997, Durban

"National Director of Hare Krishna Food for Life;
Sponsors of the Food for Life Festival;
Ladies and Gentlemen, Children,

I am delighted to be here today. It always gives me great pleasure to be surrounded by the beautiful children of our land. Whenever I am with energetic young people such as yourselves I feel like a recharged battery; confident that our country can look forward to great things. You are the future of this country - you are the people who will lead us into the next century.

It is the job of today`s leaders to make sure that by the time your turn comes to lead our country, it will be an enjoyable task to perform.

The programme of our government is like building a big house for all South Africans. It must be well-built with strong foundations. It must be big enough to shelter the whole family; and all who live in it must be in comfort and have their basic needs met.

Many of you are too young to remember much about the old house of apartheid. It was built on very shaky foundations. It barred doors and divided us into a few who lived well and the rest who were held back, and then it kept us apart from each other. Your parents` generation had to fight apartheid, get rid of it and then lay the foundation for a free and secure society.

It is only three years since South Africa achieved democracy. But in that time the foundations for a better life have been laid. Now it is up to each one of us help build on those foundations.

One of the most important building blocks is our concern for our children. That is why children have special protection in our new constitution, the most important law of our land. That is why one of the first things the government did was to make sure that young children under the age of six could get free health care in the clinics and hospitals of our country. That is why we have school feeding schemes, to make sure children do not go hungry at school. That is why we are making sure that all South Africa`s children can get the best education the country can afford. And that is why we are doing our best to prevent the abuse of children.

Another important building block fur new democracy is the love and goodwill we show to each other. That is the spirit of Masakhane, of building one another together it is also the spirit of today`s festival organised by Hare Krishna Food for Life.

I take this opportunity to extend our warmest thanks on behalf of all of us here today for the kindness and dedication that you have shown by bringing us all together. Your goal of a hunger-free South Africa is one that is shared by the government and the ANC. It is central to the reconstruction and development of our country. Already more than four million people - school children and other people - have been reached by our nutrition programmes. Your efforts are making a practical contribution to this most urgent task.

Together with the sponsors, you have helped us send a message to the world that the children of South Africa are free and that South Africa cares for its children that apartheid did was to divide our children, and prevent them from living, studying and playing together. Today we can see how much we all missed. Today we can see that our children are leading in the building of the new South Africa.

You should never forget that most of your parents did not have the rights that you enjoy; and that they struggled  hard and sacrificed much so that you could enjoy them. We must all work even harder to protect them. By studying hard at school and acquiring skills so that you can become productive members of society you will also protect our new democracy and make South Africa a better place to live.

When I look at the joy on your faces I know that we have a bright future. Let us all work together to ensure that our country grows into a happy family, free from the divisions and the poverty of the past.

Let me end by assuring each and every one of you that we love you. You are our nation`s most precious treasure and the hope of our Rainbow Nation.

I thank you.”

ISKCON in South Africa is committed to continue building on the ideals of Mandela which is non-different from its philosophy of recognising and respecting each and every individual as children of God, the Supreme Father, whom we all share a special relationship with, to unite and come together with a common goal of finding our purpose in life and improving our lives towards attaining that ultimate goal, love of Godhead, which is reflected in the way we live with each other.

The memories of Mandela’s association with ISKCON shall forever remain etched in the history of ISKCON.   We are indebted to him for laying the foundations of democracy where we can truly enjoy religious freedom and tolerance.  May his legacy live on!

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