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Sometimes a work trip accidentally has a theme, and my recent trip to Cape Town was one of those. I arrived on Thursday, December 5th to the news that Mandela had passed away. My cab driver was on the phone, telling someone that Friday would be a holiday. He glanced back at me and asked “Do you know who Nelson Mandela is? He’s passed.” I turned on the television when I got to my hotel and watched for a few hours, but it was already after midnight and so there was not a lot of new content.

Screen Shot 2013-12-13 at 7.56.17 AMThe following day I went with a small group to an ecumenical ceremony in the square, but it didn’t feel yet like the news had really hit. I had no idea how to interpret the crowd, the messages, the speakers, the politics. As the news traveled and people began writing about Mandela and his life, I dipped in here and there. The typical conversations happened. Was Mandela and his life going to be sanitized by the mainstream media for political purposes? It was good to see people attempting to show the full man, with all his complexities. It was striking to remember that such a short time ago apartheid was alive and well, and to really think about that, I mean really really think about it, and to be reminded yet again of the fact that social change is not easy, clean, or straightforward. It’s most certainly not a technical problem waiting to be solved with a new device or invention, though clearly international and national political pressure play a huge role.

Mandela and his life became an underlying base for the conference, as I’m sure was true for much of what was happening around the world. Whether he was directly mentioned or not, his life’s work was present. I participated in sessions on ICTs and open development, ICTs and children, ICTs and raising critical consciousness. In all of them, the issues of equity and power came up. How can development processes be more open and is there a role for ICTs there? What world do we want to see in the future? How do we get there? How do we include children and youth so that they are not marginalized? How can we take a critical approach to ourselves and our agendas in development and in ICT4D? Can ICTs play a role in helping people to change existing power structures, achieve more equity and equality, and transform our societies? All these sessions were planned before anyone knew of Mandela’s passing, but talking about issues in light of the recent news and the renewed presence of him and his life made them feel more real.

Fast forward to the flights home. My first flight was the long one, from Cape Town to Amsterdam. My seat mates were two inexperienced flyers in their late 30s or so. They didn’t know where to put their bags or that they could not get up to go to the bathroom while the seatbelt sign was on and the flight was taking off. They were tattooed and looked a little rough around the edges. One of them carried a small, stuffed cheetah and wore hot pink pumps. I fell fast asleep the minute we took off and woke up an hour before we landed. The woman with the pink pumps started a conversation. Almost immediately she told me that she and her friend were returning from 2 months in rehab. They were both struggling with addictions to alcohol and sex, she told me. She was originally from Croatia and had lived in Amsterdam for years. She had recently relapsed and that’s why she went into treatment. She was returning to a safe house now, and it was her daughter’s 10th birthday. She was feeling positive about her life, yet sad that she would spend her daughter’s birthday in a safe house. She had recently revealed her addiction to her boss and received a negative and disempowering response. She was trying to be strong and accept that she was a recovering addict, learning to not feel ashamed, and working on being proud of the fact that she was moving forward. I was struck by her vulnerability and sweetness and left wondering how she would fare in a world where addiction and mental illness are so buried and stigmatized.

I got on my last flight and checked my Facebook while waiting to take off. My friend Subir had posted that two Supreme Court judges had overruled the Delhi high court’s decision and upheld the constitutionality of Section 377 –  essentially ruling that homosexuality is a crime and throwing India back into the dark ages.

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My seatmate on this flight started up a conversation and I mentioned the India decision. I also told him about some of the different work that I do and the various hats I wear, including my involvement as a board member with ICAAD, the International Center for Advocates Against Discrimination. ICAAD’s work is fascinating because they look at discrimination that is embedded into law, and the link between structural and legal discrimination and racial, gender, religious and social discrimination, violence, and hate crimes including those against religious minorities, immigrants, women, the LGBT community, and people of color.

As we talked, I learned that my seat mate’s mother had been a Holocaust survivor and that he was traveling to the US to attend an event in his mother’s honor. Her father survived a concentration camp, and she had been hidden and sheltered by different families for many years until the two were finally reunited and moved to the US.  She spent years dealing with the psychological impacts of the experience, but now works to help children and youth understand and deal with bigotry and hate, to identify it around them even when it’s not directly aimed at them, and to find ways to stop it. She highlights that it can manifest itself in seemingly small ways, like bullying at school.

This accidental theme of discrimination, violence and hate, whether based on race, poverty, addiction, religious beliefs or sexual orientation was so alive for me this week. I met and learned more about brave individuals and the work of organizations who stand up in the face of injustice to take action at both the personal and the institutional level, raising critical consciousness to push for the changes that the world needs.

Despite our ‘advanced’ societies, our awareness of history, our facts, our data, our evidence, our literary genius, our ICTs, our innovations, we have very far to go, as I was reminded multiple times. But strong and caring individuals, organized communities, and political will can make a dent in structural discrimination and contribute to a more human society. More of us, self included, need to re-focus and work harder toward this end.

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