Yesterday one of the brightest lights of freedom died. Nelson Mandela, the former President of South Africa, and one of the longest serving political prisoners in the world died in a Johannesburg, South Africa hospital after a long battle with Lung Cancer. He was 95.
Nelson Mandela, known affectionately by his Xhosa tribal name Madiba, was making world history while I was watching Ninja Turtles. Capitalism at its best, right? Distract the masses from the real fight. The real revolutions. The real heroes. Although South Africa’s history is largely ignored in US public schools, the importance of the South African experience for our nation’s children is deep. My first awareness of Mandela was a drawing of him, Martin Luther King Jr., and Rosa Parks holding hands above the chalkboard. The teacher always mentioned him, but there was no picture book, no video, or worksheet to help my 8 year-old self understand the substantial impact he would make on the world as I was growing up.
Dominant culture tells us to make our kids’ lessons clear, concise, and easily made into storybooks. We do a great disservice to our youth in this regard. We deny them whole histories of a world they inherit in favor of stories about vampire teens and celebrity gossip. The story of Mandela would never fit in these mediums. He transcended their limits touching oppression in all forms; it could never have been limited to a picture-book. However, Mandela’s activism never needed to fit into our stories. He convinced us to make South African history our own history. It comes complete with revolutionary heroes, Mandela, Zuma, Mbeki, Hani, Tutu. We never seemed to see the revolution when it happened. I was too young, but I feel it now. Unfortunately, our children always hear of the hero afterwards. I wish I could have had him as a role model as a child. Mandela’s life was seemingly built for the idealism of youth. He took the system and shook it with a vibrancy and grace that produced worldwide impact.
Mandela’s South Africa was very different from the one he left us. Beginning in the 1940s the white minority enacted a political system of racial segregation called Apartheid. This system eliminated the prospect of self-governance from the majority-Black population of South Africa and outlawed political participation by non-white residents. Black South Africans formed the African National Congress and other organizations in response to counter the oppression of Apartheid.
“During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people, I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
As his power and influence grew and the white minority increasingly acted out to crush opposition to their legitimacy, Mandela caught the attention of the US Government. In 1962 the CIA alerted the South African government of an activist working to overturn the racist political structure of South Africa. That alert resulted in his arrest and national uproar. He was convicted of crimes against the state and sentenced to life in prison. Let us not forget, the US Government was directly responsible for imprisoning Nelson Mandela. President Ronald Reagan went so far as to veto legislation aimed at placing sanctions on the South African government in an effort to end Apartheid and the CIA was feeding information to the South African government on other high profile activists in the African National Congress.
“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.”
For the next 27 years Mandela was incarcerated for his vision of a more just world. He recognized the intersections of oppression; seeing race, poverty, education, health, gender and other factors as the pieces that fit together to in a reiterative process that resulted in struggle. His vision of a more inclusive and harmonious world was built on the idea that only when we struggle in solidarity across issues can we make progress on the most pressing social issues of our time.
Apartheid eventually came to an end when I was in second grade. No longer on the walls of classrooms would I see him, but it was on the news and in magazines as he had become President of South Africa and a major player in world politics. It was not until college that I saw Mandela’s South Africa first hand.
As a Civic Engagement Fellow and later Global Leadership Fellow at the University of Washington I had the opportunity to travel to South Africa and study race and reconciliation. Mandela, and his wife Winnie’s presence dominated the history and collective soul of a generation of South Africans committed to working for his vision.
Throughout my time in South Africa, I learned about the rich history of organizing and resistance, the global solidarity movement to support Mandela, and the African National Congress. I wrote extensively on Mandela’s leadership in facilitating reconciliation after hundreds of years of violent oppression. His job was to hold a sometimes volatile coalition of change agents together for the long game. He guided his coalition to see the larger goals of a country beyond Apartheid, and as any system as powerful as racism takes time to break, he committed his life to justice. While many of our country’s greatest civil rights leaders are treated with reductive storybook narratives by dominant culture, South Africa owned Mandela’s story as the complex and emotional struggle it was.
Time and again, I would speak with South Africans who pulled out his commitment to economic prosperity for all, his support of women’s rights, education access, available and accurate health education, and many more. Each spoke about making South Africa, and the world a better place. There was never any clear majority of stories that focused on one issue. For South Africans, Madiba was a personal relationship that produced the tools to make change, not revere change itself. Mandela’s greatest legacy may be just that; a man whose struggle was so epic and personal that he garnered support from the heart that is equally as relevant, equally as timely, and as important today as it was the day he was arrested.
“Overcoming poverty is not a task of charity, it is an act of justice. Like Slavery and Apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings.”
Having spent Mandela’s last birthday in Bloemfontein, South Africa, the impact of Mandela’s fight was clear as thousands of people across the nation dedicated themselves to community service to celebrate Mandela’s birthday. Although there is still much work to be done, in the 19 years since Madiba was elected President of his country, we are left with a better South Africa and better world.
I will always remember my time in South Africa, and treasure the opportunity to see the intense pride South Africans have for Nelson Mandela and the many other heroes that walked shoulder to shoulder in creating change. It was one of the most genuine and deep expressions of love I have ever encountered. I know that if only one shred of that deep love for Mandela is translated into action, our world will be glorious. Absolutely, glorious.
To send your condolences to Madiba’s family please visit the Nelson Mandela Foundation.
Let us sustain the momentum on the long road to justice in his honor. Rest in Power, Madiba.
EJ Juarez is the Development & Communications Coordinator at Poverty Action. He currently serves on the Board of the Washington Bus and was appointed by Gov. Jay Inslee to serve on the Commission on Hispanic Affairs. He earned his MA in Cultural Studies from the University of Washington and was a Global Leadership Fellow at the University of the Free State in South Africa.