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.