The Free South Africa Bridge —by Jinny Batterson, December, 2013
(As the world mourns the loss of Nelson Mandela and celebrates his long and productive life, there is still much work to do.)
Nelson Mandela has left us, at least physically.
This master builder of bridges has gone home
To somewhere where bridges are no longer needed.
During long years of imprisonment,
He learned to build bridges with his fellow inmates
And with his jailers. He studied the languages
And customs of his supposed enemies—
Post-colonialist British expatriates, Afrikaners.
Somehow, on his release, he got many,
These same Brits and Afrikaners, as well as
Zulus, Swazis, Tswanas, expatriate Indians and Chinese,
To consider themselves South Africans first,
Among their many allegiances and tribes.
Richmond, VA, has many physical bridges. The one I remember best
Was built over an expressway that had divided neighborhoods
For the benefit of faster travel to/from the suburbs
And points further away.
This bridge joined a blighted area
Of public housing with a struggling commercial
Section just west of a similarly struggling downtown
That was filled mostly with government and institutional
Buildings which emptied quickly at 5 each evening.
Builders had added high angled chain link fences at the
Sides of the bridge—to prevent anyone from throwing
Bottles or debris off the bridge onto the cars speeding
By below, away from the city’s problems.
During the 1980’s, a frustrated bridge-user scrawled
Onto the chain link, in big spray-painted letters,
“Free South Africa.”
For many years the slogan stayed there,
Unseen by I-64/95 traffic, unwashed by graffiti removers.
The bridge has since been replaced by a more modern
Span, but deep fissures remain in metro Richmond’s social fabric.
Perhaps Madiba from his perch wherever can appreciate
The irony of a free South Africa and a Richmond still
Badly in need of more bridge builders.