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EDITORIAL: Nelson R. Mandela — 1918-2013

12/11/2013, 3 p.m.
Nelson Mandela (loc.gov)

In retrospect, it is fitting that Nelson Mandela’s given name was Rolihlahla, which roughly translated means “troublemaker,” because all his life, he pushed against the status quo and social convention which had consigned black South Africans to a life at the absolute bottom of the social ladder.

From our vantage point, it’s easy to forget the crucible that forged the man we honor.

Over the course of much of the 20th century, White South Africans – Afrikaners – developed and codified a system of separation and racial segregation called apartheid and introduced by the National Party in 1948 to promote and preserve white supremacy and domination. Black South Africans and people of color were robbed of their citizenship and constitutional rights and blacks were forced onto homelands called Bantustans. Blacks, Indians and mixed-race South Africans were denied political representation and segregated along educational, medical, public service and other lines. Blacks' movement was restricted and they couldn't move around without passes.

Apartheid was as much economic as social as evidenced by the “racial capitalism” that saw black workers laboring under slave-like conditions in gold and diamond mines and factories producing fabulous wealth for whites and leaving the scraps for everyone else.

Mandela was not alone. Beginning in the 1950s, he and people like Oliver Tambo, Joe Slovo, Walter and Albertina Sisulu, Mac Maharaj and later, Bantu Stephen Biku, Chris Hani, and other leaders in the African National Congress and student movement, strategized and guided South Africans in popular protests and uprisings against the bannings, imprisonment, violence and repression of the government.

TransAfrica’s Executive Director Nicole Lee probably best captured the essence of Nelson Mandela’s life with two words: Courageous activism.

It is this attribute, among many, that we reflect on and honor on the passing of Mandela – rebel, freedom fighter, politician, and visionary – who over his 95 years built a life and legacy that transformed South Africa and the world.

Since Madiba died on Dec. 5, accolades have poured in from the powerful, royalty, celebs and regular people touched by him and who remember Mandela’s fierce dignity and unbending will, grace, forgiveness and unquestioned morality.

Such was Mandela’s standing and moral power, that despite being jailed for 27 years, his image banned from newspapers and the airwaves, people around the world took up the South African cause and demanded his release from his captors and an end to apartheid.

In this country during the 1980s, Randall Robinson of TransAfrica, Rep. Maxine Waters, Charles Ogletree, Mary Frances Berry, students, black trade unions, churches and civic society became the foot soldiers in the battle against apartheid. The Free South Africa Movement protested at South African embassies and consulates, got arrested, pushed politicians, and educated the public on the evils of the system, while trying to force pension funds, companies and other interests to withdraw their economic and financial support from South Africa.

Soon, countries around the world responded with sanctions, trade embargoes and disinvestment campaigns which crippled the economy and forced the government to at last begin negotiations to dismantle the apartheid system.

Many never thought they’d see the day, but on Sunday, Feb. 11, 1990, 72-year-old Mandela and his then-wife Winnie strode out of prison into a freedom well-earned.

By 1994, prisoner number 46664 had become South Africa’s first black president.

Mandela never bowed to convention, for example, refusing to abandon those who supported him and his cause like Castro, Ghadafi and Arafat; he sharply criticized President George W. Bush for the war in Iraq; and railed against poverty, race hatred and other social, economic and political ills.

Mandela’s work is far from done. We honor him best by continuing his fight for equality, dignity, and justice.