I was introduced to Nelson Mandela in high school while acting in acting in a play titled, Free Mandela that had been written by my late cousin (God rest her soul). I don’t remember a lot about the play except for the words that stood out like “Apartheid” and “freedom.” And there is one other thing, but I will save that for later. I’m not sure that we totally understood the fact that we were lucky to be just acting. After all, in the United States, “segregation,” “oppression,” and “discrimination” were only words we read in a history book. But it was reality in a far away place called, South Africa. For South Africans, it was no act that Black people still did not have their rights so late in the 20th century and a man by the name of Nelson Mandela was serving a life sentence in prison for fighting against the oppression of his people.
Many times our raison d’etre, our reason for living, comes to us with prayer, quiet reflection, or a life-changing event. Nelson Mandela’s ideology was shaped at 16 years of age when a speaker at his circumcision ritual let him and the other young men know that they were slaves in their own country who would never govern themselves or own land. Among the Xhosa people, this ritual is a rite of passage from boyhood to manhood, but it is actually more than that. If you remember Genesis 17:10-14, this circumcision ritual is the covenant that Abraham makes with God. It is perhaps no coincidence that God was giving Mandela his life’s purpose at that moment.
In 1942, Nelson Mandela, or Mandiba as he is affectionately known by his people, joined the African National Congress, a grassroots movement. The ANC led first peaceful movements against apartheid, then resorted to more violent guerilla tactics against the enemy. However, Mandela made his biggest statement behind bars. He showed the world that he would sacrifice his own life so that people could live in freedom. Hmm, that sounds familiar.
While I was in college, I wore t-shirts that said, Free Mandela, boycotted the companies that refused to divest from South Africa, listened to Black Activist rap, and recognized the significance of Sandra Huxtable from the Cosby Show naming her twins, “Nelson” and “Winnie.” But compared to being killed on the streets of Soweto or serving a prison sentence, what sacrifices for my freedom would I ever be called upon to make? What sacrifices are we willing to make? Will we fight for our voting rights? Will we fight the so-called “Stand Your Ground” Law?
When Mandela was finally released in 1990, he had been prison for 27 years. He could have re-entered society a bitter man but he accepted the fact that he had made sacrifices on behalf of his people. He continued to advocate for a peaceful end to apartheid, in that he urged the world not to lift the sanctions against South Africa. And I continued to wear my t-shirts. I also registered to vote. In 1993, he along with the man who orchestrated his freedom, President F.W. de Klerk was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The following year, in South Africa’s first democratic election, Mandela was elected the President of South Africa. I find it ironic that it would take the United States, a country that has been two decades removed from the Civil Rights Movment, another 14 years to elect its 1st Black President.
When Mandela died in December 2013, it wasn’t just the country of South Africa who lost this icon of strength and courage, but all of us felt the loss. And so I leave you with the last words of my cousin’s play that I do remember:
So let us speak about the Motherland
Free, free, free Nelson Mandela(Stesasonic 1986)