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Op-ed: Remembering Mandela

Op-ed: Remembering Mandela

Op-ed: Remembering Mandela

Mandela gave so much to the world, including the instructions for how to continue his work, his activism, his quest for equality.

The world is mourning Nelson Mandela today. Whether it is through the millions of tweets on Twitter or the dancing and singing outside Mandela’s Johannesburg home or the impromptu vigils here and there, or the news feeds on TV and online, most people have had at least a passing thought to him today. Newspapers worldwide have him on their covers. The UK Daily Mail has "Death of a Colossus" while the Washington Post declared, "A Nation’s Healer Is Dead."


When I first heard the news on NPR yesterday, I cried. The news was unsurprising as he’d been ill for some time and was 95, yet it still cut deep. South African President Jacob Zuma announced that Mandela had died at his home in Johannesburg. Zuma said, "He is now resting. Our nation has lost its greatest son. Our people have lost a father."

For those of us who came of full political age in the 1980s, Nelson Mandela was our touchstone. He was an icon of political activism who spurred us into action. "Free Mandela" was our mantra and the fight to free him from prison was a global struggle that united many disparate groups, LGBT among them.

Mandela’s fight for justice was in part what led me into the domestic Peace Corps when I graduated from college. Mandela was one of the people whose courage propelled me forward as an activist and made me believe I could indeed create change in the world.

So for me, as it no doubt has for millions, Mandela’s death felt deeply personal. Part of Mandela’s legacy was that he could make people who had never met him feel as if they knew him–such was the breadth of his global touch.

Of his own role in history, Mandela had said, "I was not a messiah, but an ordinary man who had become a leader because of extraordinary circumstances."

It’s difficult to think of Mandela as an ordinary man, of course. The story of his life is so profound. We don’t use the word "liberation" much anymore, but Mandela fomented liberation of an entire country–as a revolutionary activist, as a prisoner of conscience and as president of a nation.

He offered his life to free South Africa from the vile and violent bonds of apartheid that subjected all blacks and other non-white South Africans to cruel oppression. He was an activist in the anti-apartheid movement, rising through the ranks of the anti-colonial African National Congress (ANC). He was arrested repeated from 1948 on and was tried unsuccessfully for treason and sedition in 1956 and 1961. In 1962 he was arrested and convicted of attempting to overthrow the government. He was sentenced to life in prison at the infamous Rivonia Trial in 1964.

At that trial Mandela read a very long, complex statement which laid out the full history of his involvement with the anti-colonialist movement and the ANC. (The full text can be read here and clarifies the events that led to Mandela’s imprisonment.)

At the end of his statement, Mandela said, "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."

He ended, "It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die."

When Mandela was sentenced to life in prison (the prosecution had argued for the death penalty) at the notorious Robben Island prison, it did seem that he would in fact give his life for the cause of black autonomy from apartheid.

The 27 years Mandela spent at Robben Island and two other prisons turned him into an international prisoner of conscience. In the late 1980s, I was living part of the time in London where the "Free Mandela" movement was strong. I would protest in front of the South African embassy on Trafalgar Square. We had Mandela memorabilia for every passerby–leaflets, buttons, pamphlets, books. Songs for Mandela were everywhere. Apartheid was such an obvious evil and Mandela such a clear-cut hero of the struggle against it. We did whatever we could to raise awareness, to put our own sanctions in place against apartheid. We by-passed the produce from South Africa in Tesco’s. Even our flatmates’ cats were named for leading ANC figures.

That period of protest, of talking about Mandela on a daily basis meant Mandela always felt close to our hearts. His release was something we fought for, yet something we also never really expected to witness.

Thus on that day, February 11, 1990, when I watched him walk out of prison, a free man after more than a quarter century and his whole youth spent being tortured and held captive, it was exalting. It was a moment I never thought I would see, that I never thought would happen.

A few years later, on July 4, 1993, Mandela was in Philadelphia, close enough for me to reach out and touch his sleeve, as he received the prestigious Liberty Medal at Independence Hall with South African President F.W. de Klerk from President Bill Clinton.

It seemed a lifetime since I’d been protesting his incarceration, and now there he was, in the birthplace of our liberty, this elegant, iconic figure.

Mandela spoke about how when the U.S. Constitution was written, neither blacks nor women were enfranchised. He said of the pending South African constitution, "We will have to succeed to build one nation in which all South Africans will be to one another sister and brother, sharing a common destiny and shorn of the terrible curse of having to define themselves in racial and ethnic terms."

In the end he did that. All people of color, women, lesbians and gay men were all incorporated into the South African constitution, the most comprehensive in the world. South Africa was the first country to enfranchise lesbians and gays in its constitution. In 2006 it legalized same-sex marriage.

The same year they received the Liberty Medal, Mandela and de Klerk were also awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The Nobel Committee said it was for "their work for the peaceful termination of the apartheid regime, and for laying the foundations for a new democratic South Africa."

The following year Mandela succeeded de Klerk as president–the first black president of South Africa and the first president elected by a full majority of the people of all colors. That day, too, resonated as hundreds of thousands of South Africans stood in line waiting to cast their ballot for the man who had become the symbol of what South Africa could be: free.

Mandela only served five years as president, ceding the role he had never expected to have and noting that he had other work to do.

Among the work Mandela did after he left office was fighting a new battle–AIDS. South Africa has the highest rate of HIV infection in the world. Establishing the 46664 Foundation (after his prisoner number at Robben Island), the former president focused efforts on education, prevention, treatment and mother/child transmission. An estimated one in four South Africans is HIV positive. Mandela and friend Bill Clinton were also co-chairs of the advisory board of the International AIDS Trust.

Later, in 2005, Mandela’s son Makgatho, 54, died of complications from AIDS. Mandela announced the cause of death publicly to raise awareness and to reduce stigma.

Mandela was also a strong feminist, dedicated to making women equal members of South African society. He said repeatedly that women were key to moving South African society forward. He said, "Freedom cannot be achieved unless women have been emancipated from all forms of oppression….Our endeavors must be about the liberation of the woman, the emancipation of the man and the liberty of the child."

Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the democratic opposition in Myanmar and herself a political prisoner for over 25 years said of Mandela’s passing, "He made us understand that we can change the world."

He did. As a society we use words like "icon" and "role model" all the time to describe celebrities we won’t remember a year from now. But Mandela was–is–both those things. He’s an icon of social justice and moral certitude and a role model for any and all of us who want to see change created in our communities and in the world as a whole.

Mandela said, "There is no passion to be found playing small, in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of." He also said, "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."

I see Mandela as a model for activism that each of us can follow for the rest of our lives. He was a man who had every reason to hate, yet didn’t. He believed in the power of reconciliation and established the Truth and Reconciliation hearings in South African specifically to help heal a country that had been riven by racial strife and incomparable violence. He walked away from 27 years of imprisonment and torture never becoming a hater or torturer himself.

Perhaps the most awe-inspiring facet of Mandela was his stunning lack of bitterness. He always seemed to be a joyful, spirited, humorous person, a man who loved people and life. (This video of musician Johnny Clegg with Mandela is an extraordinary expression of that: 

He described himself as an optimist, and said, "part of being an optimist is keeping one’s head pointed toward the sun, one’s feet moving forward."

When we think about all he did–uniting the most divided nation on earth, preventing a race and/or civil war from breaking out in a nation that had been a powder-keg for years and when ethnic wars were being fought all around on the African continent and most importantly, rescinding apartheid–it’s breathtaking, really. But Mandela always moved forward, he never looked back.

His legacy begs us to follow in his footsteps. To lead an activist life, to remember, as he said, "It always seems impossible until it’s done."

I shall miss Nelson Mandela greatly. The simple knowledge that he was there, that he existed, that he had come out of one of the darkest times in history and made it bright, was always comforting. His example–courage, fortitude, grace–was always there.

In the end Mandela left us his legacy and his words. He wanted us all to move forward, to take the world forward, because there is so much wrong still to be righted, so much oppression still to be fought.
He said, "Sometimes it falls upon a generation to be great. You can be that great generation. Let your greatness blossom."

Mandela gave so much to the world, including the instructions for how to continue his work, his activism, his quest for equality. We can only hope we will be equal to following his stellar example.
Rest in peace, Nelson Mandela. We will never forget how you touched us.

Victoria A. Brownworth is an award-winning journalist, editor and writer. She has won the NLGJA and the Society of Professional Journalists awards, the Lambda Literary Award and has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. She is a regular contributor to The Advocate and SheWired, a blogger for Huffington Post and an contributing editor for Curve magazine and Lambda Literary Review. Her novella, Ordinary Mayhem, won Honorable Mention in Best Horror 2012. Her collection of vampire stories, Night Bites, has been published in several languages. Her novel, After It Happened will be published in fall 2014. @VABVOX

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Victoria A. Brownworth