Local activist touched by Mandela’s sacrifices

By Joe Beck

The health of former South African leader Nelson Mandela weighs heavily on the Rev. James Kilby of Front Royal these days.

As the 94-year-old Mandela clings to life in the hospital, Kilby cast his mind back to 1986 when Mandela was still four years away from walking out of prison a free man. He was locked up for 27 years during which he became a living symbol of resistance to apartheid in South Africa.

Kilby was living his life on the other side of the world as Mandela led South Africa toward democracy and an end to apartheid from his prison cell. The two never met, but Mandela’s struggle deeply affected Kilby.

Kilby and his father had their own history of activism and taking risks for the cause of civil rights in this country during the 1950s and 1960s. Kilby’s father served for a time as president of the NAACP in Warren and Page counties, a position that put him in the middle of some of the most volatile issues of the time.

Kilby recalled ominous shots being fired around his family’s house when his father signed up for a lawsuit against the Warren County public schools in an effort to break the grip of racial segregation in the education system.

In 1986, Kilby was moved by the plight of South African blacks to write a letter to President Pieter W. Botha protesting the racial injustice of the South African system. Conditions for blacks in Virginia and the rest of the United States had improved considerably by then, but Kilby said he felt a special kinship with those still suffering under South Africa’s system of white supremacy.

“I just felt what they were going through, being killed and slaughtered over there, was terrible,” Kilby said. “It was horrifying. I had real sympathy for them and what they were going through.”

Kilby sent his letter to Botha through that nation’s embassy in Washington. Kilby used the letter to protest racial oppression in South Africa and singled out what he described as “the murder and slaughter” of black South Africans as special cause of anguish.

“I do not understand why, because you happen to be a white person, that you deny your black countrymen the right to life on earth,” Kilby wrote. “We are people, too.”

Kilby wrote his letter on June 21. He was surprised to receive a reply from the South African embassy in Washington only a few days later.

The letter, signed by Secretary of the Embassy Heyn van Rooyen, bore a conciliatory tone, citing basic agreement with Kilby that South Africa had to change — and was changing.

“President Botha has rejected apartheid as a basis for South Africa’s future, declaring that apartheid is a concept which South Africa has outgrown,” van Rooyen wrote. “The right of all South Africans to equal opportunities and treatment, and the principle of equality before the law is an inherent principle that underlies our goals for broadening democratic institutions in the country.”

Mandela was freed from prison on Feb. 21, 1990. Kilby kept the article that appeared in the Washington Post describing the celebrations that swept over South Africa upon Mandela’s release.

“Those people were so happy,” Kilby recalled. “They were dancing in the street. They were rejoicing. Of course, my heart was rejoicing, too.”

Mandela’s risks and sacrifices and his ultimate triumph in serving five years as South Africa’s president inspire Kilby to this day.

“I am keeping him and his family and his country in my prayers,” Kilby said. “He is a good man, and he has done a lot of great things.”

Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or jbeck@nvdaily.com