Update: Nelson Mandela died on December 15, 2013 at age 95. Quoting Martin Luther King, Jr., President Barack Obama stated, “Let us pause and give thanks for the fact that Nelson Mandela lived—a man who took history in his hands and bent the arc of the moral universe toward justice.”
The below post was originally written on July 18 in honor of Madiba’s 95th birthday.
Greetings, readers. Moe Lunn here with a special post in honor of Nelson Mandela’s 95th birthday. Read on!
It could be argued that my initial interest in Africa was due to the the Disney film “The Lion King” in all its Zulu/Swahili mixed glory, but my true passion for the place came when I began to learn about the history of South Africa, apartheid, and Nelson Mandela. This passion, encountered when I was just a senior in high school in 1999, ultimately led to my first trip to the African continent in 2004 to visit South Africa, and later a more in-depth involvement and education in East Africa (a directional shift inspired by my now husband).
Needless to say, South Africa holds a very special place in my heart and Nelson Mandela, or “Madiba” as his millions of devoted friends, family and followers refer to him, is at the heart of it. His “Long Walk to Freedom” was not just his own freedom from prison, but freedom for the entire country from that point forward. So, in honor of Madiba’s 95th birthday–even more celebrated considering he’s been unwell–here’s a bit of a history of Mandela’s life and influence, and why he’s one of the world’s greatest heroes…
Nelson Mandela was born in 1918, in Mveso, Transkei, South Africa. As a youth, he became actively involved in the anti-apartheid movement, later joining the African National Congress in 1942. For 20 years, he directed a campaign of peaceful, non-violent defiance against the South African government and its racist “Apartheid” policies until he was unjustly imprisoned in 1963–a grueling imprisonment that lasted for 27 years.
In prison on Robben Island, Mandela spent many of his days in the harsh limestone quarry, where he and other political prisoners in his camp were required to break up limestone by hand nearly daily for thirteen years.
Nonetheless, Madiba did not step back from pursuing freedom–neither his own, nor that of his countrymen from the cruel oppression of Apartheid. Through letters and increasing contact with the outside world as his imprisonment went on, Mandela was eventually freed in 1990 due to international pressure paired with the newly instated president FW de Klerk.
While his release was a huge success for the anti-apartheid movement, it was not the end of the struggle–Apartheid still had to be done away with. Moving forward toward constitutional reform which would allow the black majority the right to vote for the first time in history, Nelson Mandela was elected to the African National Congress (political party) in 1991. Immediately, the Apartheid era began to crumble. By 1994, Mandela was elected the nation’s first black president in the first democratic elections, and the first where black citizens were able to vote. In his election speech, he said, “We have struggled hard for this day. For the day when all South Africans–coloured, African, Indian, and white–could together choose a government that would represent the interests of the majority of our people….Never, never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another…the sun shall never set on so glorious a human achievement. Let freedom reign.”
Quickly after his election, Mandela designed one of the world’s most powerful and unifying enterprises–the Truth & Reconciliation Commission (TRC). Beginning in 1996, this “restorative justice” body allowed South Africans the opportunity to put closure on the Apartheid era. Witnesses or victims of human rights violations were invited to share testimony, while perpetrators of violence had the opportunity to request amnesty. In some cases, perpetrators would find themselves in a court room confessing their sins against the very victims they were committed against, and finding forgiveness. To this day, the TRC has spread to many other nations throughout the world to provide hope and unification among populations that have experienced human rights violations within their borders.
Nelson Mandela was president of South Africa for a short five years, but to the majority population, it had been as if he’d been leading them for over thirty, even during those absent years on Robben Island. His “enormous moral stature”, according to Archbishop Desmond Tutu, was what South Africa needed and desired to achieve freedom. And since the end of his political reign, Mandela has continued to be the absolute symbol of hope and freedom to minorities and those fighting for them throughout the world.
Archbishop Tutu said of Madiba, “Nelson’s many conciliatory gestures had the longed-for result of making all kinds of people feel they belonged. Yes, he was the inclusive man….by far the most admired and revered statesperson in the world and one of the greatest human beings to walk this earth. God be praised.”
Here’s some resources to learn more about Mandela and/or the history of South Africa and Apartheid:
Invictus (film) (It was only a matter of time before Morgan Freeman was cast as Mandela. It’s just the right thing to do.)