Some families vacation in Disney World or Cape Cod. Not mine. Our destinations of choice when I was growing up were marches on Washington, picket lines, or protests at City Hall. As a six-year old, I got lost in a crowd of one million at a May Day rally in Central Park while my parents and siblings called for the abolishment of nuclear weapons. We marched to get the U.S. out of El Salvador, for sanctions against South Africa, against the greedy hospital bosses who forced my mom out on strike seemingly every summer, and for women’s right to choose.

The protests were our household’s religion. But you had to have a lot of faith to practice our particular version. The strikes always dragged on and, it seemed, there was always need for another abortion march. Then in 1990, when I was in eighth grade, something miraculous happened. On a Sunday morning, my mother screamed upstairs for her four children to wake up: Nelson Mandela was being released from prison after 27 years in confinement. As the world improbably celebrates Mandela’s 95th birthday today, my mind flashes back to that morning, crowded around the television in my family’s Bronx living room, witnessing history.

It had been just four years earlier that Mandela’s South Africa would forever become part of my life. On a late December day in 1986, my parents took me to Queens to protest the killing of Michael Griffith, a young black man, by a mob of white youths. A week earlier, the gang had pummeled the 23-year-old Griffith with baseball bats, hurled insults his way, and chased him onto the Belt Parkway, where a car ran him down. As we marched through the streets of Howard Beach, hundreds of white residents streamed out of their homes onto the sidewalks, screaming racist epithets at us. A few of them thrust watermelons above their heads. We marched and shouted back, “Howard Beach, have you heard? This is not Johannesburg!”

In South Africa, where leaders like Mandela were already locked up, the apartheid government had declared a State of Emergency to curb an increasingly defiant opposition. It banned certain political organizations, prohibited open-air gatherings, and sent the police and military into black townships to detain thousands of people. I’d seen the images daily on the evening news: peaceful protests broken up with tear gas, rubber bullets and baton charges. The violence seemed so far away—until the hatred in Howard Beach brought South Africa home, searing into my mind a connection that made the injustice a continent away seem more urgent.

Now, improbably, Mandela had been released. A week later, I wrote an essay for my eighth grade English class about how the apartheid government couldn’t break Mandela. “Nelson Mandela’s lesson is that when we keep our spirit, our commitment and our sense of worth alive, we can and will succeed in finding beauty and meaning in life,” I wrote.

Five months later, two important events in my life happened on the same day: I graduated from eighth grade, and Mandela visited the Bronx. It was part of his world tour to keep the pressure on the apartheid government.

At graduation, I gave a speech that exhorted my classmates to fight against injustice as Mandela had done. In my 14-year-old mind, history was a progressive, purposeful force. Mandela had been released and he would lead a South Africa defined by multi-racial cooperation and better lives for all. Later that night, I went with my family to hear him speak at Yankee Stadium. The repeated call and response of “Amandla…Ngawethu”—“the power…is ours,”—left us hoarse.

When I had the chance to study abroad during college, choosing a destination was easy. I picked South Africa and enrolled at the University of Fort Hare, the former missionary institution Mandela had once called home. I set out to follow in my childhood hero’s footsteps. I had no idea that the neat narrative of contemporary South African history I had constructed in my head with Mandela as the hero would turn out to be a lot more complicated.

I arrived at Fort Hare in January of 1997. As I entered my dorm room I saw posters hanging on the wall, but not of Mandela. Instead they were of Chris Hani, the former chief of staff of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the armed wing of the African National Congress, and Oliver Tambo, who led the ANC for more than 20 years. My South African classmates came in and immediately asked if I knew of the heroic roles these men had played in keeping hope for liberation alive while Mandela was in prison.

A few weeks after my arrival, voices singing in perfect harmony awakened me, followed shortly thereafter by banging on my door. I threw on a t-shirt and shorts and joined a group of 100 students as they marched across campus, singing protest songs. We waved tree branches in the air and I quickly learned the traditional protest dance known as the toyi toyi. We were singing the same songs that had become trademarks of the fight against apartheid. But now, three years after the election of Mandela, the target of the protests was not the departed apartheid government. The students were angry because many were being expelled from campus for their inability to pay tuition and fees. That was not supposed to happen in my vision of the new South Africa, the South Africa led by Mandela.

Fort Hare was helping to deconstruct my own simplistic view of the country’s history. As I benefited from this powerful learning experience, I thought about the institution’s alumni. The university had educated not only Mandela, but just about every other leader of significance to the South African liberation movement. That remarkable record, however, remained largely hidden. During my semester on campus, I tried to find books about it, but came up empty. So I decided I’d do something about it: I would write a book about Fort Hare that would suitably record the university’s role in the historic transition everyone in South Africa—including a young hero-worshipper from the Bronx—was then experiencing.

I secured a fellowship to conduct oral histories of former students at Fort Hare. In 1999 I returned to South Africa and got to work. Of course, I started with the school’s most famous alumnus. In his autobiography, Mandela called Fort Hare “Oxford and Cambridge, Harvard and Yale all rolled into one” for black South Africans. It was at Fort Hare where some of the earliest signs of Mandela’s unwavering conviction began to emerge. He was expelled in 1940 after he refused to bow to pressure from the school’s administration to abandon a protest that began over the poor quality of food in the students’ dining hall.

I drafted a letter to Mandela, requesting an interview. But he was president of South Africa at the time and I didn’t get a response. I sent another letter, and then a third. And finally, a reply came. The president would not be able to see me. He was no longer granting interviews to researchers because of the large quantity of requests he received.

I was disappointed, believing the project would be a failure without the participation of Fort Hare’s most famous former student. I’d have to try another approach. I had set up several appointments with some of the key figures of the liberation movement. Besides learning their stories, I might be able to ask them to intercede with the president for me. I hopped into my battered white Ford Meteor and drove into the heart of the Transkei, the region of Mandela’s birth. I steered on winding roads dotted with cows and goats and past bright turquoise Xhosa homes. After 10 hours, I arrived in the town of Cala, minus a hubcap and with only half a tail pipe, the result of a 360 on a rain-soaked dirt road.

I had an appointment in Cala with Ambrose Makiwane, who studied at Fort Hare a little more than a decade after Mandela left. He was elected president of the African National Congress Youth League and developed a reputation as a fierce campus activist. His leadership was needed, as he arrived at Fort Hare just as students had begun to protest against a move by the apartheid government to seize control of the university.

Later in life, he became known for giving out lashes to soldiers in one of the ANC’s guerrilla training camps, earning the nickname Mbobo, or hosepipe, for his weapon of choice. But on the day I went to see him, there was no sign of a hosepipe. In fact, at first there was no sign of him. When you get to Cala, “just ask anyone and they’ll show you to my home,” he had told me the day before on the phone. Apparently, he wasn’t as well known as he thought. It took an hour and half and about ten tries before I found someone who could show me where he lived.

I finally found a man far removed from his days as an enforcer. Makiwane, in his seventies, spent most of his time tending cows. We talked about how his family was too poor to send him to college and how he had saved up money by working as an organizer for the laundry workers’ union. He recalled leading protests to prevent the government takeover, but said the protests ultimately failed. He admitted to using the hosepipe, and could still scowl like someone with an authoritarian streak, but said he “often advised a more limited number of lashes than other folks in the camp.” We talked about Mandela, but I left no closer to an interview with the president.

On the way home, I stopped in to see Kaiser Matanzima, who studied at Fort Hare with Mandela. Matanzima, who was a nephew of Mandela’s, graduated in 1939, but followed a very different path from that of his uncle. He became a chief and assented to the apartheid government’s system of separate development in order to cement his power. When he accepted the government’s Bantu Authorities Act, which created separate homelands for blacks, Mandela called him a “sell-out in the proper sense of the word.”

I pulled into Matanzima’s driveway. He stood in the doorway in a black Fort Hare blazer, with yellow pinstripes. We sat down to lunch and it quickly became apparent that the 83-year old had little memory left. He denied ever having any problems with Mandela or any of his other contemporaries at Fort Hare and insisted that he fought for liberation just like them. One couldn’t tell where his dementia started and selective amnesia began, but it became clear to me that Fort Hare’s story wasn’t straightforward. Not only did it produce the likes of Mandela, but it also gave rise to people like Matanzima, who served as puppets of the apartheid regime.

Back in the Ford Meteor, I drove to Port Elizabeth, on the Indian Ocean. The Eastern Cape African National Congress leader Govan Mbeki had been in jail with Mandela and might be able to approach him on my behalf. His son, Thabo, succeeded Mandela as president of South Africa. I was on the phone with Mbeki, getting driving directions, when he casually said, “then you’ll make a right turn on Govan Mbeki Avenue.” I was about to meet a man on a street bearing his own name in a country that had kept him locked up for 24 years.

Before I could get any questions out, Mbeki said, “allow me to give you a little history lesson.” I still remember how he called out the full name of James Barry Munnik Hertzog in a distinctive baritone, and explained how a series of bills the prime minister pushed disenfranchising Africans helped politicize the students at Fort Hare. “We turned around to our missionaries to find an answer,” Mbeki told me. “They were afraid to come out openly against Hertzog. They wouldn’t.”

I drove to Durban, where I met Rama Thumbadoo, one of many Indian students to attend Fort Hare because no other university welcomed them. He told me how the university opened Indians up to a wider world. They had been trained by apartheid to think of Africans as “hewers of wood and carriers of water.” But at Fort Hare, they studied and lived and played together with blacks. The Indians took that spirit of camaraderie back with them to Durban, where many of them returned to teach, showing a new generation of Indians that a different South Africa was possible.

I still hadn’t met Mandela. Mbeki tried to help, but to no avail. He gave me the cell phone number of Mandela’s private secretary, but she equivocated. Some time later I attended a funeral where Mandela spoke, but it was an impossible time to approach him. The next year, Mandela came to New York when I was working at NBC News. Tom Brokaw was going to dinner with him. I tried, but failed to finagle an invite, and instead settled for Brokaw’s promise to hand Mandela a letter from me describing my project and requesting an interview while he was in town. No luck.

By then I had met dozens of others who fought in ways big and small to topple apartheid. They all got started agitating at Fort Hare and their collective memories helped tell the history of sub-Saharan Africa’s most significant institution of higher education. I recount that history in the book Under Protest, which came out on the 16th anniversary of Mandela’s election. One voice is missing: Mandela’s.

Without fail, the first question people ask when they find out about the book is, “what was it was like to meet Mandela?” When I say that we never met, I always sense a tinge of disappointment. But I’m no longer let down. More than 25 years after I was introduced to South Africa on the streets of Howard Beach, my search for Mandela taught me much more than a meeting would have, fascinating as it might have been. I learned that the country’s past is bigger than any one icon and that its future depends on getting beyond the “miracle” of his election.

Many still find it hard to get beyond the Mandela myth. Shortly after Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu described that new South Africa as a “rainbow nation,” the phrase spread among politicians, the media and big business to paint a view of South African history far more simplistic than the reality on the ground. “It has been accepted by both the national and the foreign media as the descriptive label of the South African nation,” wrote South African political scientist Adam Habib. “And, it has beguiled the outside world into trumpeting the ‘miracle’ of the South African transition.”

Clint Eastwood bought into the miracle in his 2009 movie “Invictus,” about the role rugby played in bringing about reconciliation in South Africa. In the movie’s facile rendering of South African history, Mandela inspires a predominantly white rugby team to the world title, bringing blacks and whites together. Presumably, everyone lives happily ever after.

Not so long after the film’s debut, the New York Times ran a front page article in which it hailed white fans attending a rugby match in Soweto, the nation’s largest township, as a sign the rainbow nation had arrived. “Rugby Helps Bridge South Africa’s Racial Divide,” the front-page headline proclaimed. In reporting on the match, South Africa’s eTV conjured up my hero: “Mandela’s dream of a nonracial South Africa was starting to be realized,” a news anchor said.

But perhaps I realized something they did not: It’s a lot easier to get swept up in the feel-good story of a rainbow nation or to view Mandela as a saint than it is to actually transform a country that, 19 years after the fall of apartheid, remains one of the most unequal nations in the world. South Africa has made significant strides, but remains a place where poverty, AIDS, corruption, crime, racism and xenophobia abound. It’s a place where the president is being investigated for spending $27 million of government money renovating his private home, while students don’t have textbooks. The massacre of 34 miners at Marikana in August focused the world’s attention on the crawling pace of change in a nation where the ANC swept to power in 1994 promising “a better life for all.”

Was I wrong as a child to choose Mandela as my hero? I will never believe so, nor will I believe that my search for him was a failure, even though we never came face to face. For what the search taught me was the danger of buying into the rainbow myth or into Mandela as an icon instead of a piece of a much larger story. Such imagery, so pleasing to a child, obscures the work that still needs to be done to bring about the country Mandela himself fought so hard to achieve.

* Daniel Massey lives in New York City. Under Protest: The Rise of Student Resistance at the University of Fort Hare, was published by UNISA Press in 2010.

Further Reading

No more caricatures

Engaging seriously with Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s life could help us understand how South Africa got where it is and where it’s going.