I remember the momentous day when Nelson Mandela was released from prison after a 27-year-incarceration. It was February, 1990. I was nineteen years old and I watched it live while snuggling with my boyfriend at the time. (Boyfriend long gone, feelings of watching a once-in-a-lifetime event still very much with me).
I knew it was important, but I can’t say I yet fully understood why. I had heard the buzz about apartheid during high school, mostly in the form of the Artists Against Apartheid song, “Sun City,” the one with the catchy refrain, “I ain’t gonna play Sun City,” which came out in 1985 when I was a high school sophomore. I learned the words but not necessarily their meaning. It was a new world for me and there was much to discover closer to home.
In 2006, I went to South Africa on vacation. I was older, more curious about the world. I fell in love with the people of South Africa. Having read up a lot more about their history in the lead-up to my trip, I expected the deep bitterness that such oppression and prejudice would have certainly bred in me. Instead, everywhere I went there was talk of reconciliation among black and white alike. They were giddy with excitement that they’d recently been awarded the 2010 FIFA World Cup. The air was brimming with optimism and happiness. And a lot of it had much to do with Nelson Mandela.
We went to the obligatory tourist sites. On Robben Island, the site of much of Mandela’s imprisonment, I bought his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom. I needed reading material for the evenings, and I thought that reading Mandela’s autobiography near the places that he mentioned would have special meaning. I was right. I finally understood how this wise and peaceful man had helped to shape his nation and, eventually, the world. There are leaders and then there are the people who move humanity forward. Mandela was the latter. As I hiked up to take pictures from majestic Table Mountain and walked by the tiny Soweto house where Mandela began his work, his words and his incredible story filled me with hope and admiration. It cemented in me the belief that we should always stand up not just for what’s expedient, but for what’s right and just.
I am sure many will be sharing their thoughts about the impact of Mandela’s life as we process the loss of this great leader. I am no political analyst or even particularly knowledgeable about his geopolitical impact. To me he was important because he was the epitome of being led from within instead of from without. Even in the face of extreme oppression, when it would have been easy to give up his non-violent ideals and react to his environment, Mandela listened to the wisdom of his own soul. He took a stand that easily could have had him die imprisoned and forgotten. That he didn’t reignites my hope that standing by your own truth can sometimes make a profound difference in the world.
Death is always inscrutable, of course, so the temptation is to say that we have suffered a great loss today. But if all that lives must die, I would much rather focus on all we have gained by having had this great man on our planet. For every heart he swayed, for every prisoner he helped free and for every time he stood with dignity when confronted with the most demeaning of situations, we are all uplifted.
Thank you, Madiba.