What Mandela Meant to Me

mandela2__medium.jpgThe outpouring of grief and tribute over the past two weeks showed that Nelson Mandela inspired and influenced multiple generations of people across the world.  Personally, I was moved to learn how many people I know and respect trace their political roots to the struggle of Nelson Mandela and the South African people for freedom, justice, and equality.


It is difficult, at the end of 2013, to describe the cultural and psychological significance of Mandela to the world of 1990. At the time Mandela was released from prison, Spike Lee had only done three films (She’s Gotta Have It, School Daze, and Do the Right Thing), Jesse Jackson was the dominant Black political leader in America, and Barack Obama was a second-year law student.

Against a backdrop of African American marginalization, Nelson Mandela strode onto the world stage with dignity, determination, courage, and an unapologetic embrace of the need for revolutionary change. My friends and I woke up at 4:00 a.m. to watch the live broadcast of his release from prison after 27 years of confinement. His combative 1990 interview with Ted Koppel flipped the script of who holds the power in an interview (“Mr. Koppel, I expect you to be consistent”) and brought Black folks to their feet clapping, cheering and pumping their fists at finally seeing an all-powerful media figure put in his place.

When Mandela addressed the U.S. Congress on June 26, 1990, I brought a handheld TV to work so that I could experience the event live (this was pre-internet, in case you were wondering). He was the first Black man and only the third private citizen to address a joint session of the U.S. Congress. In a piece I wrote at the time, I shared that “When the Sergeant-at-Arms said, ‘Mr. Speaker, Nelson Mandela!’ the chamber erupted in applause and tears filled my eyes as I watched the top political leadership of this country give a hero’s welcome to this dignified Black man who looked kind of like my grandfather.”

In addition to the personal pride we took in Mandela’s leadership, we also saw the standard he had set for discipline and self-sacrifice, and we threw ourselves into 24/7 organizing with enthusiasm and determination. At the height of the Free South Africa movement, my fellow student activists and I regularly worked 80 and 90 hour weeks organizing, agitating, marching, sitting in, and standing up to demand an end to U.S. support for the apartheid regime.

As we reflect on and honor the life of President Mandela, we would do him a disservice if we just made it all about him. As he himself observed, “It is not the kings and generals that make history, but the masses of the people.” For me, in the 1980s, while I had mad respect for Mandela, it was the struggle of the South African people that motivated me to become an activist. The images of thousands of people running through the streets, joined together in song and protest against a racist government that disenfranchised the majority of people and shot those who resisted touched me deeply and moved me to action. I felt a deep sense of solidarity and kinship that compelled me to do what I could to make change.

In the process of learning to make change, I learned a lot from the Free South Africa Movement. I learned that it takes a strong, disciplined, coordinated national organization such as the African National Congress to effectively lead a fight to change a nation. I learned that, once you have a consolidated national organization, you need a broad national coalition that spans organizations and ideologies such as South Africa’s United Democratic Front. I learned that you have to be prepared to measure change in decades, not days, and be prepared to dig in for the long haul (and that long haul might mean more than 27 years in prison).

And while much of that education occurred in the 1980s, Mandela’s influence was such that I was able to learn even more after his death. I have learned over the past two weeks that grace in victory and a spirit of reconciliation and redemption can inspire the entire world. And I have learned that living a life of idealism, courage, integrity, discipline, and dedication can inspire millions of people over multiple generations to continue the work to which you dedicated your years on this planet.

Maya Angelou wrote in her poem, “Mandela’s day is done,” but ours has just begun. Rest in Peace, Madiba. Thank you for all you did.

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