You Tell Us: Mandela’s Oakland visit was turning point for young refugee
on December 11, 2013
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 an automatic conservative.
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 felt I was destined to become a young neocon, simply in order to repay a debt of gratitude to the United States. Then I learned about apartheid South Africa.
For someone who had had risked his life ‘escaping’ Communist Vietnam, it was difficult to fathom that, while Reagan was professing a commitment to fight communist tyranny and oppression, his administration was aiding and abetting racial tyranny and oppression in South Africa.
I arrived in the Bay Area at the end of 1981, 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, but also because of my interest in history and politics. I was still on track to become a Republican by default, so Lozada and I had many fights, even though my English wasn’t quite sufficient 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.
A moment forever-etched in my mind occurred when I found out that 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 US Congressman Ron Dellums of Oakland. President Reagan vetoed the bill, which had been passed by both the House and the Senate, on September 26, 1985. Congress ultimately voted to override that veto, imposing U.S. sanctions against the apartheid government of South Africa. But after that veto, I veered away from my conservative track toward progressivism and civil rights activism.
From that day on, Froben Lozada became my favorite teacher, whom I continued to keep in touch with into the early 2000s. Lozada died in January of this year, aged 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 campaigns. When Nelson Mandela walked out of Victor Verster Prison on February 11, 1990, I felt as great a sense of jubilation and liberation as if I had lived in South Africa. It was the same feeling I felt once again on November 4, 2008, when Barack Obama was elected President of the United States. But back to my story.
After North Vietnam overran South Vietnam, 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 2 million people took to sea to escape, to find a better life. I was one of these boat people. 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.
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. It was a shocking revelation.
As a volunteer “Press Aide” during Mandela’s stop in Oakland on June 30, 1990, I was able to see Nelson Mandela’s easy smile and folksy manner up close before he took the stage to rapturous welcome. It was an indescribable experience. Quite possibly, nothing will rival it for as long as I live.
The following year, I was able to put aside my apprehension and fear of communist Vietnam and 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 make this return journey.
Sonny Le teaches in the Nonprofit Management program at San Francisco State University, School of Extended Learning. Le is a recipient of the Rockefeller Foundation Leadership fellowship. A native of Vietnam, he has made Oakland home since 1982.
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