“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 needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” – Nelson Mandela, from his statement at the start of his trial in Pretoria on April 20, 1964.
Every once in a while, the world is blessed with a figure larger than life, who seems to have defied all odds, and we wonder how they do it. Such a person was Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela.
I hate race discrimination most intensely and in all its manifestations
Inspiring, tenacious, and a symbol of strength and the fight of good over evil, he is the person legends are made about, and we have seen that legend unfold in our lifetime. The irony is that this icon who epitomized our collective conscience and morality became so by being an outlaw and troublemaker.
“When a man is denied the right to live the life he believes in, he has no choice but to become an outlaw.” – Nelson R. Mandela
He was a man who lived by his word and example. In his words: “Everyone can rise above their circumstances and achieve success if they are dedicated to and passionate about what they do.”
And was he passionate! In a letter to his then-wife Winnie Mandela in 1975, he wrote: “Difficulties break some men but make others. No axe is sharp enough to cut the soul of a sinner who keeps on trying, one armed with the hope that he will rise even in the end.”
Growing up in Africa, and in the 1980’s when, it seemed impossible to me that Nelson Mandela would ever live to see the outside of Robben Island or live as a free man. There were stories in the news while his release was being lobbied and it seemed as though it was a lifetime away.
But live as a free man he did after 27 years as a prisoner of South Africa’s apartheid system, helped dismantle apartheid, and went on to become the first black president of his country.
Mandela, on February 10, 1990 was called into a secret meeting with then President F.W. de Klerk, where he was informed that he would be released the next day. Of course, the prisoner was astonished at the improbability of it all, but he surprised de Klerk with his unexpected response.
As he tells it in his autobiography Long Road to Freedom, “I thanked Mr. de Klerk, and then said that at the risk of appearing ungrateful I would prefer to have a week’s notice in order that my family and my organization could be prepared.”
It wasn’t that he didn’t want to be released – on the contrary – but he thought it wouldn’t be wise to spring such a surprise on his people. But the president was done and insisted he be released the next day, February 11, 1990.
I was driving when a news bulletin announced that Nelson Mandela had been released. I nearly had a conniption! My heart was racing; thoughts were flying through my mind at one million miles per second wondering if this could be. What did that mean for apartheid? Was he being released only to have a contract out for his life? (A South African intelligence agent, Gordon Winter had earlier described a similar plot).
It was an event of seismic proportions for the people of South Africa – both black and white – and no one really knew where it would lead. It was a very heady period for anyone who was concerned about apartheid.
Sadly, tens of thousands of South Africans lost their lives in the days following his release. It fills one with awe to think about the impact the man from Mveso, in the Transkei region of South Africa has had on not just South Africa, but also the world.
As one of the most influential people on the planet, he convened a group of world leaders he called The Elders, including Desmond Tutu, Kofi Annan and Jimmy Carter to help fight some of the injustices of the world such as women’s equality, promoting peace and democracy and AIDS (he lost his son Magkatho to AIDS).
“I hate race discrimination most intensely and in all its manifestations. I have fought it all during my life; I fight it now, and will do so until the end of my days,” he said. And he did just that.
For such a powerful, influential and inspiring personality whose persona towers so high in our minds, the man affectionately called ‘Madiba’ was a very simple man who just believed in doing the right thing no matter what.
He just wanted to make the world a better place, even if he had to lose his freedom or die for it. He lived up to his middle name Rolihlahla – which, translated literally from the Xhosa language means “pulling the branch of a tree,” but generally means “troublemaker.”
When news of his transition broke, I was once again in my car. I had just parked when a news flash showed up on my phone. This time I just felt the blood drain from my face and my eyes welled up. Though I never met the man, he felt like family to me and he made me proud. Madiba couldn’t die; he had super powers; he’d defied all odds!
Not many people live to see their 90th birthday. It is mind-boggling how he lived to be 95. I knew it had to happen but I was not ready for this. Not today.
Some of his sound bites were rather prophetic and today ring particularly eerily today: “Death is something inevitable. When a man has done what he considers to be his duty to his people and his country, he can rest in peace. I believe I have made that effort and that is, therefore, why I will sleep for the eternity.”
R. Ayité Okyne is a writer, lifestyle blogger, event producer, TV show host, public speaker and author of “I Know Why The Cheshire Cat Grins: When Shift Happens”, a collection of 30 poignant and thought-provoking essays that tackle the difficult topics of tolerance, forgiveness, religion, envy and jealousy among others.
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