Trevor Noah, the host of the Trevor Noah Comedy Show, wrote in his memoir about his birth in South Africa during Apartheid. His father was a white Swiss German, and his mother was a black South African woman from Soweto. Trevor was born in 1984 and stated he was born a crime because he was half white and half black – a mixed-race child.
In 1990 when F.W. de Klerk announced that “the time for negotiation has arrived,” his statement signaled the beginnings of dismantling the institutionalized system of apartheid in South Africa. By May 1994, South Africa had entered a new era. Most of the apartheid system had been struck down, and there was a newly elected democratic president, Nelson Mandela.
There were many powerful similarities between the experiences described by Bishop Tutu and Nelson Mandela and the experiences of blacks in the United States. To begin, just 27 years before Trevor Noah’s birth,16 states in the U.S. had their anti-miscegenation laws overturned by the Supreme Court’s 1967 decision, Loving v. Virginia. Interracial marriage became legal. Had I been born in one of these states, I would have been born a crime.
Nelson Mandela vividly describes the complexity of segmenting black South Africans based on dark or light complexions. The darker the skin, the more menial the task or lot in life. Yet it seems that few remember the 11 terms formerly used to represent degrees of blackness in this country. One word most often used is mulatto. Mulatto is defined as a person of mixed race who is half white and half black.
In February 2019, IBM had to apologize for using the term, mulatto, on job applications. The job applications were used for people in Brazil and South Africa. But IBM is headquartered in White Plains, N.Y., and is considered one of the top companies in the world. During the 80s and 90s, the number one abiding principle promoted by the company was respect for the individual. We should expect more of ourselves and our corporate citizens. Isn’t that one of the fundamental beliefs that set Nelson Mandela and Bishop Tutu apart? They expected more from themselves and their fellow men/women. They believed in the goodness of people and were patient enough to allow others to grow into their humanity. As a result, Mandela could befriend his jailers, grow vegetables for them, and be saddened because he could not say a proper goodbye when he left the Pollsmoor facility. Few understood his sadness. This same view of the goodness of others allowed him to reach across the aisle to work with those in the former apartheid government and hammer out a new constitution.
Bishop Tutu was of like mind to Mandela in how he believed in others. He was firmly rooted in his belief in God’s creation of man. “They have been created in the image of God, but their dignity had been callously trodden underfoot daily by apartheid’s minions …just because of an accident of birth, a biological irrelevance, the color of their skin.” And like Mandela, Bishop Tutu understood that the gross misconduct of racial injustices had to be identified, called out, and challenged legally and respectfully.
Bishop Tutu’s deeply rooted Christian values enabled him to chair the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and wholeheartedly believe that forgiveness and amnesty were integral to the healing process. In addition, his faith allowed him to withstand criticisms from his fellow citizens who wanted severe punishment for the perpetrators who had committed the atrocities for the sake of apartheid.
Both men described the regular tactic employed by the apartheid system to take entire swaths of black South Africans and transport them to unimaginable habitats of poverty. In addition, the apartheid system allowed white South Africans to segregate blacks from whites and to control how and where black South Africans lived and traveled. Juxtapose this practice with the redlining laws that still exist today in America. Based on the extensive research of author Richard Rothstein in his book The Color of Law, the federal government was complicit in implementing the laws that currently protect many white suburban communities. Although most would agree that the effects of redlining still exist, and some communities are cracking down on it – one could argue that it has subtly been replaced by the new term “gentrification.”
One of Trevor Noah’s stories about his mother is that she refused to abide by the laws that made it illegal for Black South Africans to be in white neighborhoods after dark or risk being jailed and fined or mysteriously killed. I immediately thought about the sundown towns in this country. Remember the famous movie several years ago, Green Book? I’m not 100 percent sure the actual events in the film were factual. Still, the Green Book, written by a Harlem-based black postal worker who had grown weary of the discrimination experienced when traveling, is accurate.
There are documented towns in America where blacks had to leave before sundown or risk their life or other types of retaliation. For further information on the history of sundown towns in the U.S., read James W. Loewen’s book Sundown Towns published in 2018, or read the Washington Post article below for a summary of his work.
The final similarity I want to highlight is how Bishop Tutu and the TRC approached the secrecy of killing black South Africans and the importance of recounting the stories to dignify the victims’ lives. It was important to say to the families and everyone that the victims mattered. And the fact that the brutality inflicted by people who should have been protecting them made it even more reprehensible. I was reminded of the reasons Bryan Stevenson established the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama: to create a space to recognize and memorialize the senseless racial lynching of black people in America.
Stevenson’s Equal Justice initiative believes these markers “can help transform our national landscape into a more honest reflection of the history of America and reflect a community’s ongoing commitment to truth-telling and racial justice.”
 Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela (New York: Back Bay Books / Little, Brown and Company, 1994), 556.
 Desmond Tutu, No Future Without Forgiveness (New York: Doubleday, 1997), 6.
 Richard Rothstein, The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America (New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2017), XIV. For more information watch 17-minute video based on Rothstein’s research – Segregated by Design: https://www.segregatedbydesign.com/
 Washington Post Article on Sundown Towns https://www.washingtonpost.com/history/2021/11/23/sundown-towns-ahmaud-arbery/