I’m sure everyone has heard by now, but Nelson Mandela, former South African president, has died at age 95.
I lived in South Africa for half a year while studying at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. The program was entirely focused on human rights, and in every single class I took, he was talked about. My South African friends spoke about him with reverence. I mean, his nickname was “Madiba” (father) for a reason.
I visited Cape Town for a few days after my exams. I was fortunate enough to visit Robben Island, where he was imprisoned for 20 years. When you arrive on the island, the entire field leading up to the first building is covered in yellow flowers. It seems odd that the scene of such terrible atrocities is now covered in such beauty. (The album of photos I took on my trip is viewable here.)
The tour guides at Robben Island were all former political prisoners. Our tour guide told us about how after years of arguing with the guards, prisoners were allowed to play games in the courtyard. They asked for tennis balls and rackets. Since many of the political prisoners were barred from communicating with each other, they would cut a slit in a tennis ball, shove a note inside, and then “accidentally” hit it over the wall (where the other prisoners would find it). He told us how the prisoners fought for basic things, like the ability to wear pants instead of shorts, bedding, and access to library materials. When they did succeed, it often took years for the changes to be implemented.
Mandela, along with the other prisoners, was forced to work in the lime quarries on the island. Since they were not allowed to wear sunglasses, Mandela suffered permanent eye damage from working in the quarry. He also suffered chronic lung infections from working in the quarry as well.
It is often said that Mandela was a peaceful leader. While this is true, he did not discount that violence was sometimes a necessary tool for enacting change. South African President P.W. Botha offered Mandela a release from prison in exchange for “unconditionally reject[ing] violence as a political weapon,” since there were violent revolts all over the country at the time. Mandela refused.
Mandela was released in 1990. He worked with Botha’s successor, F.W. deKlerk, to abolish apartheid. In the next election, he was elected president. At the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, they had pictures and stories of people who waited in line up to three days to vote, many (if not most), who were allowed to vote for the first time.
His prison number was 46664. This was common knowledge among the South Africans I met. I remembered it after seeing billboards for the foundation he created to help fight HIV/AIDS (which was simply called “46664“), which he admits he did not work hard enough to fight during his time as president.
I remember when I was in South Africa in 2009, they were preparing for the World Cup that was going to be hosted there in 2010. Many people were concerned that he wouldn’t live to see it, after he fought so hard for it to happen in his homeland. I’m glad he lived to see it– and then lived another couple years, just to show that he could.
I keep trying to think of someone else to compare Mandela to, but I can’t. He was truly peerless. I arrived in South Africa on July 1st, which meant I was able to participate in “Mandela Day” celebrations on July 18th, his birthday. One of my friends took me to the celebrations in Johannesburg. There must have been thousands of people there to celebrate Madiba’s birthday. I can’t imagine a gathering of that size for the birthday celebration of any US president (or even public figure, for that matter). A few weeks later, I went to go see a play called “Amandla,” which was about his life. The world “Amandla” is a Xhosa and Zula word for “Power!” which was a common refrain for ANC supporters, usually responded to with, “Awethu!” which means “to us.” It is their version of “power to the people.”
I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say he was one of the best people humanity has ever seen. The South African Constitution that was created during his presidency was the first constitution in the world to include sexual orientation under its anti-discrimination policies (it is widely considered one of the most progressive constitutions in the world).
I know that Nelson Mandela and my experiences in South Africa have greatly shaped who I am as a person. I can only imagine how influential he has been to millions of other people worldwide.
To close, I will share one of my favorite quotes of his: “For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”
Thank you for everything, Madiba.
If you would like to send a message to Mandela’s family, you can send one here.