Back in the day, you didn’t grow up in America learning much about Africa. Usually what we did learn was related to extreme famine, poverty or war. If you wanted to learn anything else or get a fuller picture, you had to be curious, motivated, or taught by someone who had knowledge and an interest.
As a kid I didn’t think about South Africa much. But when I did, I remember thinking how ridiculous it seemed that a small minority of people could keep a majority of people enslaved. It wasn’t like America where we were outnumbered and certainly out gunned. Whenever I’d see South African athletes at my favorite sporting events I always hoped they would fail—horribly and embarrassingly. I had no good thoughts about those people. To me, they were as heinous as American slave owners, Nazis and Soviets. (I grew up when there still was a Cold War). And all of that young vitriol was coming from the queen of “can’t we all just get along.” The kid who regularly disagreed with her older brother about all white people being bad, despite seeing the violent clashes over bussing in Boston on a daily basis.
I was in college when I first remember hearing about Nelson Mandela. I believe that was probably one of the first political activities I participated in: Bennett Belles united with A&T Aggies protesting against Apartheid and fighting for divestment from South Africa. I vaguely remember getting Coca-Cola products off campus as being one of the targets since the company was heavily invested in South Africa. Because both colleges and the city of Greensboro were so well known for major civil rights moments, I guess we wanted to have a significant cause to rally around, too.
Mandela was released from prison while I was in graduate school. When Apartheid in South Africa finally ended, I remember how excited many students were. Everyone who participated in the protests felt as if their contribution to the struggle, no matter how small or far away from South Africa, was finally a win.
And then the world got to see a miracle. A man held in prison for 27 years because he simply wanted to get rid of an evil, unjust system, didn’t seek revenge. He sought reconciliation. In this world of eye-for-an-eye, it was jaw-dropping and awe inspiring. The world witnessed a true leader and a gifted politician. He showed all of us how it is done right. This is the one thing about Mandela that amazes me most.
The snippets of the memorial service I managed to see as I got ready for work today were filled with many people saying many more poetic things about the man than I ever could. It was a testament to all he meant to his nation that in the pouring rain, ordinary people were celebrating his life—singing, dancing, and cheering despite the lousy weather.
Mandela would not let people think of him as a saint, but he couldn’t stop the world from making him an icon. When I look at the disdain for compromise and reconciliation in my own country among people and politicians alike, I can only hope our politicians, leaders and everyday people look to Nelson Mandela’s example and step our game up.
“He changed laws, but he also changed hearts.” – President Barack Obama