Commentary: Dorchester’s meaningful ties to the South Africa of Mandela and Tutu

Pictured in 2004, when the South Africa Partners were honored for their work (l-r): Bill Walczak, Michelle Rue, Bishop Desmond Tutu and Joel Abrams. Photo courtesy Bill Walczak

Bishop Desmond Tutu, part of a generation of anti-apartheid activists and revolutionaries who brought down a South African government built on racism, died on Dec. 26, 2021. As Anglican bishop in South Africa in the 1980s and 1990s, he became known world-wide as the heroic face of peaceful opposition to the apartheid government of South Africa.

Massachusetts had a particularly close relationship with the anti-apartheid struggle that was led by Nelson Mandela, whom the apartheid government jailed for nearly 30 years. He was released in 1990 following a world-wide boycott of South Africa as part of demands for democratic elections there. Mandela was elected president in that first post-apartheid election.

Boston was one of Mandela’s first stops on a world-wide tour after he was released from prison. Massachusetts had been the first state to withdraw pension funds from companies that were doing business in South Africa, an action that spread across the world and put great pressure on the white leadership of South Africa to negotiate an end to white rule.

Much of that leadership was Boston-based, including then state Rep. Byron Rushing, and the former Dorchester resident and judge Margaret Burnham, who was head of the Free South Africa/Free Mandela movement. During some of Mandela’s years in prison, a few of his children also lived in Massachusetts.

An estimated quarter million people attended Mandela’s speech on the Esplanade on June 23, 1990. He was greeted as a hero, a combination Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, and George Washington, everywhere he went. I was part of a large crowd that lined the entrance road to UMass Boston to cheer and greet Mandela’s motorcade when he came to visit the Kennedy Library. He also stopped at Madison Park High School, and at an evening dinner in Mandela’s honor, the Trotter School chorus, of which my son was a member, got to sing for him at the Copley Plaza.

Boston and the Commonwealth did more than root for a changed South Africa. In 1997, Massachusetts and the Eastern Cape Province signed a “sister state-province agreement” that called for close ties between educational and medical institutions. In 2000, a state commissioned Massachusetts–South Africa Health Task Force” sent a delegation to attend the International AIDS Conference, held in 2000 in Durban, South Africa. I was one of 20 people chosen to travel there in my role as CEO of the Codman Square Health Center.

What we saw was an immensely proud country that had succeeded in overturning a government built on bigotry and was then building a country based on democracy. We visited modern cities but also villages without electricity and met a population in the throes of a devastating AIDS epidemic. Our tour introduced us to universities and hospitals looking to modernize, and community groups creating support systems for their communities. We met community leaders, educators, and medical providers who informed us how we might help.

Back in Boston, the Codman Square Health Center staff and board looked at ways the health center could help. We realized that with the Dorchester House Multi-Service Center (now DotHouse Health), we had expertise in HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment, technology, and education, and launched a plan to work with entrepreneurial organizations in East London in the Eastern Cape Province.

These included the A.W. Barnes public school, located next to an “informal settlement” of shacks, which partnered with us to build a community technology center— the Masimanyane Women’s Support Center— that worked with us on HIV and domestic violence, and with a group of women who made lunches and uniforms for the students at the school in a micro-enterprise project. The project was named “Izandla Ziyahlambana,” a Xhosa saying that means “the hands wash each other.”

The community technology center established early but primitive Zoom-like connections between students from the A.W. Barnes School and Codman Academy, while offering technology classes to students and their parents. We purchased industrial grade sewing machines and a joiner for the women to build their sewing businesses and sell garments and other textiles for income. We were able to have our HIV/AIDS workers collaborate with South African HIV/AIDS workers. A short video of this work is available on YouTube under the title “Izandla Ziyahlambana."

The partnership received an award at the 2004 South Africa Partners gala, at which Bishop Tutu was a guest of honor.

The work of these health centers with partner organizations in South Africa inspired those of us who participated on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean because it was built on hope – for helping to create a healthier and better world. Over my many years in community organizing, I’ve come to realize that hope is the main ingredient that results in positive change. Hopeful people will work to make things better; hopeless people generally do not. Izandla Ziyahlambana gave people from communities 8,000 miles apart a reason to hope for a better world - something we could use in our divided and discouraged country and world.

Bill Walczak is a Dorchester resident. His column appears regularly in the Reporter.

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