What Nelson Mandela Taught Me, a Vietnamese War Refugee, About Justice and Reconciliation

December 16, 2013

Sonny Le volunteered as a press aide at Nelson Mandela's visit to Oakland in 1990. Photo courtesy of Sonny Le.

By Sonny Le

Seeing and
hearing Nelson Mandela speak at the Oakland Coliseum on June 30, 1990 was a
DNA-changing experience. He had saved me from becoming a flag-waving
anti-Communist Vietnamese immigrant.

To the thousands
of Vietnamese refugees arriving in the 1980s, Ronald Reagan was not just the 40th
President of the United States, but also our "savior," our champion against
communist tyranny and oppression. Or so we thought. I was destined to become a
Republican in order to repay a debt of gratitude to him, but then I learned
about apartheid South Africa.

For someone who
had risked his life escaping Communist Vietnam, it was difficult to fathom
that while Reagan was professing to fight communist tyranny and oppression, his
administration was aiding and abetting racial tyranny and oppression in South

I arrived in the
Bay Area at the end of 1981 as a 17 year-old refugee during the height of the
anti-apartheid campaign on college campuses, especially at UC Berkeley.
Initially, I didn’t yet have the wherewithal to understand what was going on
until I enrolled at Merritt College in the Oakland Hills in 1984.

Many of those
involved in the Third World Student movement at UC Berkeley and San Francisco
State University had now become professors and instructors. Merritt College
Chicano Studies instructor Froben Lozada was one of them. He taught a class
called “Racism in America.”

I took the class
out of curiosity and interest in history and politics. I was still on track to
become a Republican so Lozada and I had many fights, even though my English
wasn’t quite proficient enough for political debates. For whatever reason, he
took a liking to me. He directed me to books, literature and films about the
Civil Rights Movement, the Farm Workers Union, the Black Panther Party and, of
course, South Africa.

I was shaken to
the core. I grew up in what was then the Republic of South Vietnam or ‘free’
Vietnam, America’s ally in Southeast Asia. USA was “Number One” to us. America
had come to Vietnam to hold against the tide of communist tyranny and
oppression. She could do no wrong.

moment forever etched in my mind occurred when I found out
many black soldiers suffered racist abuse at the hands of their white comrades
in Vietnam, and then came back to what amounted to second class status in
America. It took me days to shake it off.

Then came the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986, which
had been championed by then-Oakland U.S. Congressman Ron Dellums. When President
Reagan vetoed the bill in 1985, which had been passed by both the House and the
Senate, it dawned on me that his anti-Communism stance was all politics. South
Africa’s racist brutality took a backseat to geopolitics. (The veto was overridden by both Houses of Congress shortly after.)

From that day on, Froben Lozada became my favorite
teacher, whom I continued to keep in touch with until the early 2000s. Lozada
died in January of this year at age 83, a fighter to the end.

I went on to take part in the Anti-Apartheid Movement at San Francisco State University, where I had transferred, as well as
other civil rights issues. When Nelson Mandela walked out of Victor Verster
Prison on February 11, 1990, I felt a sense of jubilation and liberation as if
I had lived in South Africa.

Upon his release
from prison, Mandela and his then-wife, Winnie, embarked on a 12-day, eight-city
tour of the United States, which included a visit to Oakland, California on
June 30, 1990. I signed up to work the event as a volunteer.

With previous
experience working for the Merritt College student newspaper, I was assigned to
work as a “Press Aide.” I was able to see his easy smile and folksy manner up
close before he took the stage to a rapturous welcome, an indescribable

For a
newly-arrived immigrant, one who had escaped his country by boat, it was an
experience and a memory that possibly nothing will rival for as long as I live.

After the victorious North Vietnamese overran South
Vietnam in 1975, uniting the two halves into the Socialist Republic of Vietnam,
a communist state, purges and persecutions were carried out against those who
were part of the American-backed regime, of which my father was a member.

Millions of Vietnam’s southerners suffered. As many
as two million took to sea to escape, to find a better life. I was one of them.
Like all Vietnamese refugees, we had resentment and hatred for the regime that
forced us out. It had become our sworn-enemy even though we were fellow Vietnamese.

But when Mandela came out of prison after
twenty-seven years, his words portrayed none of the resentment and hatred for
his jailers or the regime that had tried to kill him. His message was one of
reconciliation, of rebuilding a new South Africa inclusive of those who had
oppressed and brutalized non-white South Africans. No purges and persecutions. It
was a shocking revelation. 

What I learned
from Mandela was that hatred and resentment only poison your own mind, not your

The following
year, I was able to put aside my apprehension and fear of communist Vietnam. During
that time, visiting Vietnam was seen by many in the overseas Vietnamese
community as aiding and abetting an enemy state, which needed to be brought
down. But I went back to see my family for the first time in eleven years. I was
part of the first wave of former boat people to have done so.

Sonny Le teaches in the Nonprofit Management program at
San Francisco State University, School of Extended Learning. Sonny is a
recipient of the Rockefeller Foundation Leadership fellowship. A native of
Vietnam, Sonny has made Oakland, CA home since 1982 and is a member of the
board of directors of the Museum of Children's Arts.