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Mathibela Sebothoma

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The Neighbor Spotlight focuses this month on a man who is a recent arrival to Riverwest. Mathibela Sebothoma moved into the rectory at St. Mary Czestochowa last December when he began his studies at Marquette University. He came here from South Africa where he lived through a remarkable time of history. He was born in 1968, one of nine children, in the township of Mamelodi. According to the terms of the apartheid laws, the entire population of South Africa was designated to live in certain areas according to race. At the top of the social structure were those of European heritage. Next on the ladder were the Asians — mostly people from India who didn’t have the “good fortune” to be white, but came to South Africa with education and skills as professionals and merchants. Below them were the Coloreds, people of mixed race. And at the bottom rung were the native peoples, Africans restricted to townships and Bantustans (reserves) with few amenities, who could not travel without passing through police check-points and showing documents. Mathibela grew up in such a township outside of Pretoria. He studied in a high school with no library or science lab, where he and his classmates were educated to be servants of white masters. His father supported the family with a business making gutters in a backyard workspace. Mathibela’s parents worked constantly but did not dare hope for a better life. When Mathibela was eight, he witnessed unarmed school children shot by white policemen. That was when he first realized “there was something terribly wrong in our society.” Like others of his generation, he did dare hope for a better life. “As young people we dared to say, ‘Freedom or death!’ and ‘Freedom in our lifetime!'” He read underground literature, especially articles by Steve Biko, the black South African student leader who wrote boldly about how African people should be proud of their legacy, proud of their skin color and not accept the colonial mindset that being a fair-skinned European was intrinsically better than being a dark-skinned African. He also listened in secret to the nightly broadcasts of the African National Congress, the liberation movement led by Nelson Mandela. While Mandela was in prison, other exiled ANC leaders broadcast from countries bordering South Africa and kept hope alive in the hearts of the hundreds of thousands of Africans living in the squalor of the townships. Mathibela knew he would have been imprisoned if he had been discovered listening to the ANC broadcasts and reading prohibited literature. But prison came soon enough, with years of detention without trial, physical and emotional torture, and electrical shocks. He was only 14 the first time he was arrested for participating in a student demonstration. He and his companions went into the police station singing. They felt no fear because they were totally convinced of the rightness of their cause. There was brutality inside those prison walls, though, and Mathibela still feels scars from abuse that he suffered there. With countless acts of resistance by people like Mathibela, joined by pressure from the international community, South Africa’s apartheid regime finally fell in 1994. Nelson Mandela was sworn in as president of the first government, which gave the right to vote to the African majority. At age 26, Mathibela was chosen as an official during those historic first elections. He filled out his first ballot with enormous pride. “I felt like we were starting a new page of history. I was part of a real triumph of the human spirit.” That was eleven years ago. Speaking of the changes he has seen in his country, Mathibela says, “I am very hopeful. My nieces and nephews will not have to go through the hell that we went through. Dignity has been restored for many people.” Of course he knows that 300 years of abuse cannot be healed in a decade. He recognizes that his country faces enormous challenges. After the intensity of the last 25 years in South Africa, Mathibela says living in Milwaukee feels like being on retreat. He has found good people at Our Lady of Divine Providence parish and at Marquette. Friends tell him they’re amazed at how many people he knows. It’s natural to introduce himself to neighbors and strangers. “I don’t pass a person without acknowledging them. I think this is part of the gift that Africans can bring to America — a sense of community, a sense of acknowledging the presence and dignity of the other person. People here can live so close but not know each other.”Besides his keen interest in mass communication, Mathibela’s other passion is writing. He writes a monthly column for The Southern Cross, a weekly paper in South Africa. He writes lots of letters to his friends and family back home. As a poet, he has connected with writers and performance artists in Riverwest and appeared at Linnemann’s, the ArtBar and Timbuktu. When he looks around this city, Mathibela sees much that reminds him of the apartheid system he knew as a child. He sees segregated neighborhoods and schools. He sees the media presenting dark-skinned people as sports stars, drug dealers, entertainers or criminals, but not as family people or professionals. “This may be a systematic way of keeping people in a low place in society.” Ever attentive to the media, he noticed after Hurricane Katrina how a white woman was pictured with a caption saying she “salvaged” what she needed for her family, while a black woman was pictured with a caption saying she had “looted” supplies. “Where is the journalistic integrity there?” Mathibela asks. He speculates that, horrible as it was, “Katrina may have been a blessing in disguise. People have been living in poverty for a long time. They were suffering in silence, but now the whole world knows about their condition.” To his mind, “human security takes precedence over national security. The primary responsibility of any government is to take care of its people.” To Mathibela, that means “closing the gap between those who are extremely rich and those who are extremely poor.” It also means “respecting human dignity.” E-mail Mathi at . For more about his works and opinions, Google “Mathibela Sebothoma.”
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