Voices: Nelson Mandela (1918-2013)

Front page, The Sowetan newspaper, Soweto, South Africa. Image via Lydia Polgreen.

African men want to have their wives and children to live with them where they work, and not be forced into an unnatural existence in men’s hostels. African women want to be with their menfolk and not be left permanently widowed in the reserves. Africans want to be allowed out after 11 o’clock at night and not to be confined to their rooms like little children. Africans want to be allowed to travel in their own country and to seek work where they want to and not where the labour bureau tells them to. Africans want a just share in the whole of South Africa; they want security and a stake in society.

Above all, we want equal political rights, because without them our disabilities will be permanent. I know this sounds revolutionary to the whites in this country, because the majority of voters will be Africans. This makes the white man fear democracy. But this fear cannot be allowed to stand in the way of the only solution which will guarantee racial harmony and freedom for all. It is not true that the enfranchisement of all will result in racial domination. Political division, based on colour, is entirely artificial and, when it disappears, so will the domination of one colour group by another. The ANC has spent half a century fighting against racialism. When it triumphs it will not change that policy.

This then is what the ANC is fighting. Their struggle is a truly national one. It is a struggle of the African people, inspired by their own suffering and their own experience. It is a struggle for the right to live. During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.

– Nelson Mandela, during the first day of his trial on charges of sabotage, April 20, 1964.

After 27 years in prison, Mandela had become a global symbol of gracious victory over centuries of entrenched xenophobia. He was welcomed back to public life by his countrymen, the international community, and Winnie. In ’91 he was elected president of the ANC. A year later, the couple that had been apart for all but six years of their 34-year marriage officially separated. They would divorce in 1996.

In 1993, Mandela and de Klerk were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts to dismantle the country’s Apartheid system. On April 27, 1994, South Africa held its first democratic election. 19 parties contended for the presidency including de Klerk, but in the end Mandela won with over 12 million votes to de Klerk’s nearly four million. In a move that was unusual among leaders on the continent, Mandela promised one term in office.

President Mandela immediately set about healing Apartheid’s deep, rancid wounds. He leveraged the nation’s enthusiasm for sports to promote reconciliation between whites and blacks, encouraging black South Africans to support the national rugby team the Springboks. His efforts—and the team’s dramatic 1995 Rugby World Cup win against the favored New Zealand players—inspired the 2009 Clint Eastwood film “Invictus” starring Oscar-winners Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon. Mandela’s life would inspire many small and big screen films including 1997’s “Mandela and De Klerk” with Sidney Poitier in the title role, and the upcoming “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” with British actors Idris Elba and Naomie Harris in the roles of Nelson and Winnie.

– Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond, Ebony

The Eiffel Tower is lit in the colors of the South African flag. Image via Samira Sawlani.

But Mandela, even after leaving office in 1999, remained fiercely outspoken in condemning what he saw as flagrant western imperialism. In 2003 he lambasted the United States and the United Kingdom for “attempting to police the world” over their military intervention in Kosovo in 1999 and the invasion of Iraq, even suggesting that moves to undermine the United Nations were motivated in part by the rise of a black African, Kofi Annan, to the office of secretary general.

He also urged US citizens to take to the streets in protest at moves to attack Iraq, accusing US President George W Bush of wanting to “plunge the world into a holocaust”.

“If there is a country that has committed unspeakable atrocities in the world, it is the United States of America,” he added.

Hain, then a minister in Tony Blair’s British government, recalls Mandela phoning him up at the time of the build-up to the invasion of Iraq as angry as he had ever heard him.

“He was just very angry and worried,” Hain said. “But I fully understood why; he is a man of principle. He would do things that offended the Bill Clintons and the Tony Blairs, like he would say to Fidel Castro, ‘Thank you for supporting us’, and visit Cuba, or he’d do the same to Gaddafi in Libya.”

– Simon Hooper, Al Jazeera

Nelson Mandela lived for that ideal, and he made it real. He achieved more than could be expected of any man. Today, he has gone home. And we have lost one of the most influential, courageous, and profoundly good human beings that any of us will share time with on this Earth. He no longer belongs to us — he belongs to the ages.

Through his fierce dignity and unbending will to sacrifice his own freedom for the freedom of others, Madiba transformed South Africa — and moved all of us. His journey from a prisoner to a President embodied the promise that human beings — and countries — can change for the better. His commitment to transfer power and reconcile with those who jailed him set an example that all humanity should aspire to, whether in the lives of nations or our own personal lives. And the fact that he did it all with grace and good humor, and an ability to acknowledge his own imperfections, only makes the man that much more remarkable. As he once said, “I am not a saint, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.”

I am one of the countless millions who drew inspiration from Nelson Mandela’s life. My very first political action, the first thing I ever did that involved an issue or a policy or politics, was a protest against apartheid. I studied his words and his writings. The day that he was released from prison gave me a sense of what human beings can do when they’re guided by their hopes and not by their fears. And like so many around the globe, I cannot fully imagine my own life without the example that Nelson Mandela set, and so long as I live I will do what I can to learn from him.

President Barack Obama

Death is inevitable. When a man has done his best for his people and his country, he can rest in peace.

– Nelson Mandela, 1994

Cover for “The New Yorker,” by Kadir Nelson. Image via Kia Makarechi.

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  • croquet

    These voices:

    “Juan Cole wrote that Mandela is not a birthday cake to be celebrated. The funeral with its hypocritical heads of state won’t honor him. He is a pioneer to be emulated. We honor him by standing up for justice even in the face of enormous opposition from the rich and powerful, by taking risks for high ideals. We won’t meet his standards. But if all of us tried, we’d make the world better. As he did.” http://www.juancole.com/2013/12/mandela-supported-apartheid.html

    “There was a price to be paid for his long walk to freedom, and the end of South Africa’s system of racial apartheid. Mandela was rehabilitated into an “elder statesman” in return for South Africa being rapidly transformed into an outpost of neoliberalism, prioritising the kind of economic apartheid most of us in the west are getting a strong dose of now. In my view, Mandela suffered a double tragedy in his post-prison years. First, he was reinvented as a bloodless icon, one that other leaders could appropriate to legitimise their own claims, as the figureheads of the “democratic west”, to integrity and moral superiority. After finally being allowed to join the western “club”, he could be regularly paraded as proof of the club’s democratic credentials and its ethical sensibility.”