Gloria Gaines met former South African president Nelson Mandela on a former trip to the country, as seen in this photo from 1993.
ALBANY, Ga. -- Dougherty County Commissioner Gloria Gaines was actively involved in South African politics even before she really knew a whole lot about the place.
An veteran of the American civil rights movement during the 1960s, Gaines was encouraged to learn more about the white-minority rule in South Africa -- termed apartheid -- after a 1982 business trip to Nigeria. Upon her return to Atlanta, she found herself elected co-chair of the newly formed Georgia Coalition Against Apartheid when a notice for an organizational meeting of the group caught her attention.
In her own words: Gaines tells her experiences here.
Some 30 years after that life-altering meeting, with apartheid now a painful memory in South African history and Gaines a part of the government of the county where four generations of her family have lived, the county commissioner recently returned from her 12th trip to the African nation. And while the political climate there has changed, Gaines' love for South Africa and its people has not diminished at all.
"South Africa is such a beautiful place; its people, geography and rich culture are evidence to me of the presence of God," Gaines said earlier this week after returning from her June 19-July 9 trip. "While my umbilical is buried here four generations deep in the soil of Southwest Georgia, I've always had a healthy curiosity to visit and experience the nations of the world that I first discovered in my junior high school geography book.
"Sure, Africa called to me, but so did Bangkok in Thailand and mainland China and England, France, Canada. I've always felt a deep curiosity for the rest of the world."
Gaines made her first trip to South Africa in 1993 under the umbrella of the Atlanta-based King Center, serving as part of a team of minority officials called upon to help the newly elected majority government expand and upgrade overtaxed infrastructure. As planning manager for the Metro Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA), Gaines shared her expertise on transportation matters vital to the emerging nation.
"Much of my work was done through a memorandum of understanding we had with the premier of the KwaZulu-Natal province," Gaines said. "Public transport was a key issue as South African blacks were allowed to leave the townships for the cities that had long been the province of whites. Blacks usually came into the cities only to work.
"My work in KwaZulu-Natal afforded me a wonderful opportunity to see the premier there progress from a small provintual ruler to a position as a national cabinet minister."
In her official capacity, Gaines made a number of friends in South Africa, most notably with Ambassador Tandi Luthuli Gcabashe, the daughter of the second black man to win a Nobel Peace Prize. The two met in Atlanta as Gcabashe, living then in exile, helped form the Georgia Coalition Against Apartheid. Gaines also worked alongside many of the men who led the struggle against apartheid, among them Nelson Mandela, Arshbishop Desmond Tutu and past South African President Thabo Mbeki.
Gaines was, in fact, visiting South Africa in 1999 during a retirement celebration held in Mandela's honor. With her during that trip was her then-10-year-old niece, Malendie Gaines, now a 24-year-old doctoral candidate in epidemiology -- whose concentration is HIV/AIDS -- at East Tennessee State University.
Malendie Gaines is currently taking part in a two-month internship in South Africa, and she and her mother, Gloria Gaines' sister Donna, were able to relive that earlier experience during the Gaines sisters' most recent trip.
"Mr. Mandela stopped at our table back in 1999 to acknowledge Malendie and talk to her about her future, even in this roomful of adoring South African citizens and distinguished visitors," Gloria Gaines said. "That left a huge impression on her, and I think that's part of what inspired her to work so hard so that she could return to the country."
Gaines said South Africa has changed significantly in the 20 years since she made her first visit there.
"A lot of the dirt paths that were there when I first came in 1993 are now paved roads," she said. "And the major cities -- Johannesburg, Capetown, Durban -- are as metropolitan as any of America's great cities.
"There also isn't as much violence in South Africa now, and there was no blood-splattered scene like the one we came upon in 1993. And while there's still optimism in South Africa, it has gradually declined as the citizens wonder when life is going to get better for them."
Gaines said her trips to South Africa over the years, plus her other journeys, have led her to one significant realization: The world is becoming a much smaller place.
"This most recent trip, like the others, was spiritually reaffirming," she said. "There was so much beauty, so much evidence of the presence of God. But I realized when I left how much smaller our world has become. I mean, there I am a block away from the president of the United States and only a short distance from the hospital where one of the world's great political icons lay very ill.
"Certainly I am always a part of Dougherty County's government, but by and large every time I make a trip like this one I go as Gloria Gaines, as this little girl from South Georgia who grew up fourth generation Dougherty County. Despite growing up as one of 11 children from meager circumstances, I have still managed to become a citizen of the world. That is a privilege I've been granted that's still hard for me to believe."