Dec 06, 2013 Phil Blackwell Uncategorized
A Sunday morning, February 11, 1990, and I was still a freshman in high school. We were all about to head out to church, but we turned on CNN – and the most astonishing, remarkable and wonderful sight greeted us.
Walking out of a prison in South Africa, a 71-year-old man raised his fist to the crowds gathered. What had once seemed impossible was now true, and even at that formative age, I grasped the meaning and cheered and smiled. Nelson Mandela was free.
Now Mandela is gone. A full life, dedicated to finding freedom for all of his people, and displaying love and forgiveness, even to those that oppressed and jailed him, made Nelson one of the great figures of the late 20th century and a hero to millions – no, make that billions – around the world. He is certainly the greatest hero of my life.
Born into a noble family tribe in the Transkei region of South Africa, the man affectionately called “Madiba” cast aside tribal obligations as a young adult and, instead, plunged into a life of activism and politics that, for a long while, looked like a quick path to martyrdom.
While other African nations shook off the bonds of colonialism in the 1950s and ‘60s, South Africa remained unique in the brutal way that it treated most of its citizens.
The horror of apartheid, a state-sanctioned society where a white minority held all the power and blacks had few appreciable rights, made that land a stain upon the human conscience. Blacks needed passes just to have permission to travel around, and never to the enclaves of white privilege.
This was what Mandela and his African National Congress allies tried to take down – first by peaceful means, such as protests and sit-ins and boycotts But when that didn’t work, he turned to violence, figuring, in his middle age, that there was no other way apartheid could end.
That led to trials, and ultimately his treason conviction that, in 1964, sent him away to what he, and so many others, thought would be a lifetime of imprisonment, most of it on the notorious Robben Island, where the government believed he would rot away and die.
Yet those 27 years spent in prison (most of them at the notorious Robben Island) transformed Mandela from a local political figure into an international legend. Confined, he endured the harsh labor and total physical separation from his family while plotting, in secret, his return to power.
Meanwhile, the world took up his cause. Anti-apartheid movements sprung up everywhere, including the United States, even drawing in a heretofore indifferent college student named Barack Obama into politics for the first time. Artists and entertainers joined the cause, too, exposing Mandela’s story and making his quest for freedom a unifying movement.
All of that pressure worked, and the apartheid regime crumbled once Mandela was set free, leading to his election as South Africa’s first democratically elected president in 1994. Yet it was what he did with the rest of his life that made him a man for all time.
No one could have blamed Nelson if he was bitter, angry and hurtful toward those that had put him in jail and killed his people. But he knew, better than anyone, that revenge would only increase the cycle of violence and recriminations, and eventually destroy the country he loved so much.
So instead of payback, Mandela sought forgiveness. He met with the opposition and brokered peace, plus formed a new government. He invited his former jailer to his inauguration, and met with many of the most extreme apartheid backers, much to his own supporters’ consternation.
And while the Truth and Reconciliation Commission he formed didn’t meet all expectations, those that stepped forward, black and white alike, to confess their crimes helped South Africans rise out of its dark past and find some common ground.
Sports helped in that quest for unity. Mandela understood its power, so even though the South African rugby team, called the Springboks, symbolized racial privilege to blacks, he still brought the Rugby World Cup to his nation in 1995.
On the day of the final that South Africa would win over New Zealand, Mandela strode onto the field at Ellis Park in Johannesburg wearing a Springbok green jersey and hat. The fans, mostly white, chanted “Nelson! Nelson! Nelson!” That would lead to other big sporting events in that land, most notably soccer’s World Cup in 2010.
By then, Mandela was ailing, and his prolonged goodbye gave us all a chance to prepare for this sad day. The sadness soon faded away, though. And in Cape Town and Johannesburg, Pretoria and Durban, and especially places like Soweto, South Africans danced and celebrated Madiba’s life, and all he had done to further the cause of freedom and justice.
Nelson Mandela taught us so much. If he, of all people, could forgive and heal those that tried to ruin him and those that believed in him, what excuse do we have to hate? It’s better to hope, and dream, of a better, more peaceful and more equal world, as he did throughout his 95-plus years on earth.
Hamba Gahle (Go In Peace), Madiba. And thank you.
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