On Human Rights Day, we bring you the story of Colin Haskin, an Amnesty activist in South Africa, who tells us how Nelson Mandela inspired his own activism.
I was born in 1957 to a white Irish father and a black Zulu mother. My older sister and younger brother came out white. I did not. For us to live together as a family, my red-haired father had to be classified as black.
When we ventured out from our home in Kliptown, an area of Soweto outside Johannesburg where “coloured” families lived, we had to walk separately. My mum and I would walk ahead, my dad and his two white children behind.
My parents taught me that if ever a white person asked me to do anything, I had to do it. One day when I was about 10, I was out shopping with my brother and sister – as usual walking behind them to avoid problems. Suddenly a white woman called to me: “kaffir, come push my car”. So I did, but as hard as I tried, I couldn’t move it. She began to scream at me. I began to cry.
My sister saw what was happening and came back. She told the woman not to treat her brother like that. An argument followed, the police were called, and I was arrested. My “crime” was that I was the product of an “immoral act”. I was left in jail alone with adults for two days.
When my mother came to pick me up, the police knew she was living with a white man, so they slapped and hit her in front of me. It was terrible.
Fast-forwarding to after the 1994 elections, it was so wonderful to see my mum and dad, still in love, proudly walking down the road hand in hand.
My first steps towards activism came after I helped my sister’s daughter go to university. This led me to volunteer at Wits University adult literacy school. I soon left my job in computing and by 1992 was the national coordinator of the National Literacy Centre (NLC).
One day in 1993 I had a call saying that Nelson Mandela wanted to meet me. I thought someone was playing a cruel joke on me. But then people in the ANC persuaded me it was true. So what did I do? I ran to my mum. I was scared because Mandela was such a big person and I was such a small person. My mum took me to church and everyone prayed for me.
The day of the meeting with Mandela came, so of course I arrived half an hour early. Mandela’s assistant reassured me that I was expected and tried to calm me down. She told me, “he’s just another man”, but that didn’t help. As I sat there, I became hotter and hotter, and seriously thought about fleeing. Then suddenly she took me into his room.
He jumped up and hugged me. His height made me feel even smaller. Then he called me “son” and I was dumbstruck, literally. He asked me something and I couldn’t answer. His assistant gave me a glass of water. He again asked me something about the state of literacy.
I found myself telling him that there were between 17million and 19 million illiterate people in South Africa. I explained that the NLC tried to reach people in every province. He asked lots more questions. Then he asked me to be his adviser for the day during a forthcoming seminar on literacy.
That day, he beckoned me to sit next to him in front of hundreds and hundreds of people. I was worrying that everyone would be asking themselves who I was. During the seminar, every time someone asked a question, Mandela leant towards me and asked my view.
At the end of the seminar, he invited all the cleaners to join us for food. I thought, “Wow, this really is the man”.
“Always respect the cleaners”
I will never forget what he said to me that day. “We all have only a very short life, and in that life we must focus our attention on the marginalized and oppressed to make a difference”. He said that the people he most respected were the poor, the people living with HIV/AIDS, the illiterate, the street people.
He then asked if I would do him a favour. “Of course,” I said. “Always respect the cleaners,” he said. “Even if you’re going to visit a king, go and speak to the cleaners first.”
That affected me so deeply, and from that moment onwards I threw myself into activism. He had given me confidence that I could do something to make a difference, and guidance on how to behave.
I continued with the NLC but also joined other activist groups. We didn’t call it human rights activism at the time, but that’s what it was.
Picking up the flag
In 1994 I went to study in the UK and joined Amnesty there. Afterwards I worked with Unicef and Unesco, mainly working with people in camps in places such as Rwanda, and on programmes for children. I also worked with the Irish government on a programme to fight racism.
I returned to South Africa in 2007 and made contact with Amnesty. Horrific xenophobic attacks were happening, so I also joined the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation. Lots of my activism at that time related to refugees and migrants.
Today, my life is still dominated by activism – mainly related to Amnesty; to promoting a green economy in ways that help poor people; and to helping the homeless.
When Mandela died last week, I was all over the place emotionally. I was sad, but also proud that I had shared his era. I feel privileged to have done so. I don’t need my name in history books. I was there.
I wandered around Johannesburg speaking to people. Some were scared about what would happen after his death. I used the words Mandela had said to me – use your short life to make it count and work for human rights. I said that human rights is about empowerment. Once you know your human rights, then it’s like education – no one can ever take that away from you, however hard they try to break you.
We are so lucky in Amnesty to have Mandela as an icon for human rights. He was the champion of human rights, but now he’s left the room so we must pick up the flag.
ACT NOW. On this Human Rights Day, which coincides with Nelson Mandela’s memorial service today, join Write for Rights – “pick up the flag” as Colin says, and do something about the thousands around the world who continue to languish in jail because of their political views. Write a letter. Change a life.
Even if you can’t attend Mandela’s funeral, you can be there virtually. Leave your messages and we’ll share them with the family next Sunday.