I knew Nelson Mandela's name almost as soon as I knew my own. Over the hum of Saturday morning cartoons, my South African mother told me Nelson Mandela was her hero. She explained that South Africa was her home, and that was where Mandela came from. As a child, I couldn't comprehend her stories about South Africa and Mandela's bravery—my mother's home seemed like a myth—but as I grew older, I began to understand my mother's stories.
Over three decades ago, my mother immigrated from South Africa to America. Although as a white woman she was barred from visiting the townships where the government forced blacks to live, she broke the law to visit her friend Carmen. Eventually, the cops found out and began following my mother. Afraid of being arrested for violating the country's racist laws, my mother decided to flee the country.
For years, my mother saw Mandela as a symbol of hope that brave people might one day fight Apartheid and end institutionalized racism. From America, she watched with awe when Mandela left prison and Apartheid ended. In the wake of Mandela's death, my mother has spoken to me several times about her past. This week, I sat down with my mother, Chryl Resnick, to talk about growing up in Apartheid-era South Africa, sneaking into townships, and why Mandela is her hero.
VICE: What was it like to know that Apartheid existed while you were in South Africa?
Chryl Resnick: As soon as I was old enough to understand what was going on around me—which was pretty early on in my life—I knew that it was dead wrong. I couldn’t understand why it existed. It always seemed wrong to me. I couldn’t understand when I took Spanish dancing lessons with my friend Carmen, why I wasn’t allowed to be friends with her. She wasn’t allowed to come over to my house, because it was illegal. Black people couldn’t come over to white people’s houses. I couldn’t understand why I wasn’t allowed to go to her house.
Did you try to hang out with her when you could?
I think Carmen did come to my apartment a couple of times. The only time that non-white people could come into the white communities was to work in people’s homes or as domestic servants—they couldn’t come on a social basis.
What was it like to enter the townships to visit Carmen?
I remember one morning we went there the night after Carmen's brother had gotten the crap beaten out of him by the police—there had been a raid. I remember how uncomfortable I felt that he had to endure that at the hands of the white police.
Was it uncomfortable because you felt guilty?
I felt like it was my fault. I'm white.
Eventually, you discovered the police were following you, because you had visited a township. How did you find out?
A friend called my mother and told my mother that it might be better if we got out of the country, because the telephones were being tapped and we were being followed. I do recall one day walking on Sea Point Beach and feeling like I was being followed. I assumed I would have been arrested if I were caught. As a white person, it was illegal to go into townships.
Was this around the same time that you became aware of Nelson Mandela?
I was always aware of Nelson Mandela. He's been my hero for a very long time. I always was negative about myself from the perspective that I wished I had the courage and the guts to stand by my convictions—I was too afraid to end up in jail. I looked at Mandela and thought, My God, I wish I could be more like you—more brave like you.
What do you think you would have done if you didn’t worry about imprisonment?
If had I stayed in South Africa, I would have become incredibly politically active. It always seemed wrong to me, and I couldn’t understand it. I have to admit, I was never courageous enough to protest. I was always scared of what would have happened to me.
Do you regret that you didn't stay and become politically active?
I regret having missed the most important events in South African history. When I left in 1976, a lot of people my age were leaving—my generation left. We really left in droves.
What do you think set you apart from people who accepted Apartheid?
I can only look inside my own family. I think my mother set me apart. My father was born and raised in South Africa, and that’s all he knew. That was the system he was raised in, and that’s what he knew. My mother never believed in Apartheid. Another part of it was that my brother never believed in Apartheid either.
Did you ever get the chance to hear Mandela speak?
The only event that I went to where I saw him in person was in 1990 at the Los Angeles Coliseum after he was released from prison. It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. I looked around the LA Coliseum—which I think holds 85,000 people—and it was packed to capacity. It was overflowing. All I could tell you is that when Nelson and his wife Winnie walked across the stage, tears streamed down my face. I never thought I would see that man alive.