Today, July 18th, is designated by the United Nations as the first annual international holiday honoring former South African president Nelson Mandela, on the occasion of his 92nd birthday. South African design blogger Lana explains the purpose of the commemoration well:
"Nelson Mandela has given 67 years of his life fighting for the rights of humanity so the idea is to now give 67 minutes of your time and help someone less fortunate in your local community."
If you are too young to remember what South Africa was like and what it meant to the world before 1990, it might be difficult to appreciate how remarkable it is that this man commands such widespread love and admiration that he can convene a council of world leaders dedicated to peace-making, challenge entrenched attitudes and enlist unlikely allies in a common struggle against the scourge of AIDS, and inspire tributes such as this statement from US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, which reads, in part:
"Nelson Mandela is a hero to people of all backgrounds and experience who strive for freedom and progress. His story is filled with amazing strength and integrity of spirit."
It's a day for celebration and gratitude to a man who, although born as Rolihlahla Madiba to a family of royal lineage, grew up under a steadily-tightening noose of racial oppression that climaxed with the South African National Party's imposition of apartheid law in 1948. Apartheid forced South Africans to carry passes designating their race, and it relegated black citizens to overcrowded "homelands" that were unfit for cultivating food or much of anything else.
Mandela was in his 20s when he and fellow students Oliver Tambo and Walter Sissulu joined the African National Congress Youth League, ratcheting up the 32-year-old organization's human rights efforts with acts of non-violence civil disobedience and calls for a fully democratic state. In the 1950s, an increasingly defiant ANC published its Freedom Charter and Mandela burned his passbook. The government struck back, most notoriously during the March 21, 1960 Sharpeville Massacre, in which government troops fired on a group of 7,000 peaceful protesters against the pass laws, killing 69 and wounding 168.;
In response, Mandela and other leaders within the ANC dropped their pledge of non-violence and began a campaign of sabotage and armed resistance. In 1964, Mandela was convicted of treason and sentenced to life in prison. Rethabile at Black Looks has part of the statement he made at that trial as he faced what most observers assumed would be a death sentence, complemented by a poem that serves as a breathtaking coda to his powerful testimony.
"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 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 need be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die."
Mandela and with fellow ANC leader Sissulu would spend the next 26 as prisoner 46664 on Robben Island, much of that time in solitary confinement. He endured private grief, including the death of his mother and oldest son, and he was barred from their funerals. To the consternation of the leaders of the apartheid regime, his legend grew during his confinement, and along with it, so did sympathy for the anti-apartheid cause. An international sanctions movement rose up. South African sports teams were banned from the Olympics and other international contests. Scholars and entertainers boycotted the country.
In the face of these pressures, the Afrikaner regime went to brutal lengths to hold on to power. Journalist Charlayne Hunter-Gault recalled what she saw while reporting from there in the mid-1980s:
"I could not have imagined the lengths to which the apartheid state had gone to and was going to go to prevent blacks from taking their rightful place in the society. The apartheid regime's violence was some of the worst known to man, including having a laboratory that created undetectable poisons designed to kill anti-apartheid activists. Vicious beatings that often resulted in death were a regular occurrence. And thousands of people simply disappeared, never to be heard from again."
After decades of pressure, and with violence driving the country to the brink of civil war, Pres. F.W. de Klerk began secretly negotiating with Mandela and other anti-apartheid movement leaders. Those negotiations culminated in Mandela's release from prison on February 11, 1990. Here is de Klerk's announcement of the release and his commitment to a transition to a multiracial democracy:
Mandela was 73 years old. It had been more than 20 years since there had even been a photograph of him. Before he walked out of the prison, it's reported that he did a remarkable thing -- he handed an affectionate note to one of his jailers and they embraced. And then he took his first steps as a free man:
In 1993, Mandela and deKlerk shared the Nobel Peace Prize. In 1994, Mandela became South Africa's first truly democratically elected president. He made de Klerk his deputy president. A Truth and Reconciliation Commission established by the new Parliament sought to finally heal the wounds of apartheid. Under Mandela, South Africa was restored to the community of nations. In 1999, he handed over the reins of party leadership to his deputy, Thabo Mbeki, who subsequently became president. While South Africa continues to struggle with crime, HIV, a faltering economy and other challenges, it is a stable, functioning multiracial society -- evidenced most recently by its successful hosting of the World Cup soccer competition.
In a 2006 article reprinted in 2009, Mzati Nkolokosa recalled former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown's assessment of the importance of Mandela's determination to steer South Africa toward reconciliation:
"It was because of the greatness of Mandela—and, especially, his refusal to hate or become embittered—that a multiracial South Africa was born, not in further bloodshed and catastrophe, but in peace and democracy."
In a 2004 interview with Oprah Winfrey, Mandela said that the time that he was forced to spend in reflection during his long years of captivity made him a better man who paid more attention to his family and the needs of others. Those needs now animate his life:
"There is nothing I fear more than waking up without a program that will help me bring a little happiness to those with no resources, those who are poor, illiterate, and ridden with terminal disease. If there is anything that will one day kill me, it will be the inability to help them. If I can spend a tiny part of my life making them happy, I'll be happy."
Young South Africans such as the popular singer Lira are especially grateful for what Mandela has done for their country. Here she is with the Soweto singers paying tribute to the man known to South Africans as "Madiba" or "Tata" (father):
In a world riven by cruelty, cynicism, terror and degradation, Nelson Mandela stands as a reminder that moral vision, conviction and integrity still count for something in this world. Happy birthday, Madiba, and thank you.
- A gallery of images of Mandela throughout his life.
- The PBS docudrama Endgame recreates the secret negotiations between the imprisoned and exiled leaders of the ANC and the Afrikaner government that led to the eventual release of Nelson Mandela.
(h/t to Blogher Contributing Editor Mata H for the link to The Elders.)
image of Nelson Mandela at the closing ceremony of the World Cup from picapp.com
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