President Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela passed on December 5, 2013 in Johannesburg at the age of 95.
His long life, a testament to fearlessness and perseverance, will be recounted for generations. President Mandela was a tireless activist who began in his early youth to mobilize his people, long since degraded by colonial racism in South Africa. He became one of the most visible leaders of the African National Congress (ANC) when in 1978, his second wife, Winnie, suggested that the ANC change its slogan from “Death to Apartheid” to “Free Mandela”. Mandela’s work as an outspoken agitator made him a controversial enemy of the state, and landed him, for nearly three decades, in jail, including one of the world’s most notoriously brutal prisons, Robben Island. Mandela’s release in the early 90’s was a benchmark for progress, and captured global attention as it re-energized those who shared his vision for a new, transcendent South Africa.
When Mandela won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993, he blossomed in international consciousness, perhaps, as the next to hold Dr. King’s mantle — a leader willing to sacrifice 27 years of his liberty in an attempt to further the idea of radical, transformative peace. As Mandela took office in 1994, in South Africa’s first democratic elections, when the ANC won that race by an overwhelming landslide, Mandela became, for many of us, a sign post for what was to come. Though he was not the first black leader of an African country, in so many ways, he was our first Black President, one whose image stood not only for a shifting South Africa but also embodied a hope adopted by black folks all over the world that we could be understood as capable, powerful, forgiving and victorious.
Surely, it isn’t as simple as we saw it from this country. Surely the years have given us perspective as Truth and Reconciliation hearings brought to light Winnie’s complex history and admission of human rights violations. Back then, though we looked to President Mandela and his advisor and partner in those days, Winnie, as shining examples of triumph over seemingly insurmountable tribulation.
Apartheid, South Africa’s long standing system of oppression, had been toppled by the disenfranchised. It had been dismantled, brick by brick, by the masses, by elders, students, artists, domestic workers and public intellectuals who faced nearly certain death as they defended their most basic human rights. The entire world discussed divesting from companies and institutions that gained from the brutal treatment of Black and Colored South Africans. We watched on as Nelson, Winnie and thousands of their countrymen spoke truth to power, even in the face of unspeakable violence against them. Their fight became a symbol for black struggle, everywhere.
When Apartheid fell and President Mandela took office, it reminded those of us in The States that we, too, had the capacity to be our own best leaders; that we too, could speak against our historical assailants, could name their transgressions, and as a shifting and dynamic country, could also move towards our own truths and reconciliation. Mandela’s presidency helped us understand meaningful change. It also helped us understand partnership and commitment, as we watched Winnie pointedly and gracefully lead the struggle for agency as Nelson strategized behind bars. Mandela’s first wife, Evelyn Ntoka Mase organized with him at the onset of his political career and his widow Graca Mahel is powerful in her own right, as the only woman to have been First Lady of both Mozambique and South Africa.
But it was Winnie Mandela’s foresight and tactical prowess that made her a respected leader in the ANC in her role as head of its Womens League. So, in many ways there’d be no President Barack or First Lady Michelle without there first having been a Nelson. And there would not have been Nelson, at least in the way we imagine him, without Winnie helping to craft his image, speak his case. Winnie worked alongside her husband of nearly forty years during incarceration and up until their separation shortly before he took office in 1996.
Then, we held both them in the highest regard, spoke of them at our dinner tables, named our children after them and honored them on “The Cosby Show.” They were ours, as we were theirs.
So, in the same way we celebrated The Mandelas’ successes as they were our own, with the same amount of zeal we heralded their ascendancy to power — we also mourn the passing of this legend. We commemorate his life, his fatherhood, his vision, foresight, and most importantly his enormous capacity for belief in the best of humanity. He will be missed, he will be treasured. May his legacy live long in the hearts and minds of those who toil for true freedom, everywhere.
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Through The Years: Nelson Mandela
1. RIP Nelson Mandela
South Africa's first black president and anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela, 95 has died. The Nobel Peace Prize Laureate had been receiving intense home-based medical care for a lung infection after three months in hospital. Mandela's body started to reject the antibodies treating his lung infection, which ultimately claimed his life. For More Info: http://bit.ly/19kjVf3
2. Young Nelson Mandela
African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela. (Photo credit: STF/AFP/Getty Images)
3. Nelson Mandela Marries First Wife Winnie Mandela
South African anti-apartheid leader and African National Congress (ANC) member Nelson Mandela poses with his first wife Winnie during their wedding. (Photo credit OFF/AFP/Getty Images)
4. Nelson Mandela Released From Prison
ANC leader Nelson Mandela and wife Winnie raise fists upon his release from Victor Verster prison, 11 February 1990 in Paarl. (Photo credit: ALEXANDER JOE/AFP/Getty Image
5. Nelson Mandela Returns To Soweto
Anti-apartheid activist Nelson Mandela returns to Soweto four days after his release from Victor Verster Prison in Paarl, South Africa, after 27 years in detention, 14th February 1990. (Photo by Georges De Keerle/Getty Images)
6. Nelson Mandela Meets Prince Charles
November 1997: His Highness, Charles, Prince of Wales meets then ANC leader and President of South Africa, Nelson Mandela, on an official visit to South Africa. (Photo by Oryx Media Archive/Gallo Images/Getty Images)
7. Nelson Mandela & Winnie
South African anti-apartheid leader and African National Congress (ANC) member Nelson Mandela (L), flanked by his wife Winnie (R), attends a ceremony in his honour at Trocadero Square on the Plaza of Freedom and Human right, 06 June 1990 in Paris. Nelson Mandela, who was released from jail on 11 February 1990, is in Paris for a two-day official visit. (Photo credit: DANIEL JANIN/AFP/Getty Images)
8. Nelson Mandela Meets British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher
South African anti-apartheid leader and African National Congress (ANC) member Nelson Mandela (R) shakes hands with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher 04 July 1990 on the steps of No 10 Downing Street. AFP PHOTO/GERRY PENN
9. Nelson Mandela Gives Speech
South African president Nelson Mandela. (Photo by Die Burger/Gallo Images via Getty Images)
10. Nelson Mandela Gets Kiss From Angela Davis
A welcome party for American communist activist Angela Davis, hugged by ANC President Nelson Mandela. (Photo by Gallo Images/Avusa)
11. Nelson Mandela & Fidel Castro
African National Congress (ANC) President Nelson Mandela smiles 26 July 1991 in Matanzas as he salutes the crowd . A right, Cuban leader Fidel Castro. (Photo credit: OMAR TORRES/AFP/Getty Images)
12. Nelson Mandela At First Session Of Democratic Parliament
President Nelson Mandela takes the salute outside parliament at the historic first session of the democratic parliament in 1994.(Photo by Gallo Images/Oryx Media Archive/Benny Gool)
13. Nelson Mandela & Bill Clinton
Former US President Bill Clinton and his former South African counterpart Nelson Mandela attend the third Mandela Annual Lecture, 19 July 2005 in Johannesburg, South Africa. Mandela was presented with a white cake with four candles for his 87th birthday, which he blew out to loud applause from the audience, which sang "Happy Birthday" led on by a boisterous Desmond Tutu. (Photo credit: ALEXANDER JOE/AFP/Getty Images)
14. Nelson Mandela & Kofi Annan
UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan shakes hands 15 March 2006 with former South African President Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg (Photo credit:ALEXANDER JOE/AFP/Getty Images)
15. Nelson Mandela & Wife Graca Machel Celebrate His 88th Birthday
Nelson Mandela and wife Graca Machel look at his beautiful 88th birthday cake. (Photo by Oryx Media Archive/Gallo Images/Getty Images)
16. Nelson Mandela Celebrates His 89th Birthday
Former South African President Nelson Mandela jokes with youngsters as they celebrate his 89th birthday at the Nelson Mandela Children's Fund in Johannesburg 24 July 2007. (Photo credit: ALEXANDER JOE/AFP/Getty Images)
17. Nelson Mandela Statue Unveiling
Ex-South African President Nelson Mandela speaks during a statue unveiling ceremony in his honor at Parliament Square on August 29, 2007 in London, England. (Photo by Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images)
18. Nelson Mandela & Morgan Freeman
Actor Morgan Freeman and Nelson Mandela attend the 'Unite For A Better World Gala Dinner' on September 2, 2007 at the Hotel de Paris in Monte Carlo, Monaco. (Photo by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images)
19. Nelson Mandela At Unite For A Better World Gala Dinner
Jimmy Cliff, Bono, Wyclef Jean and Nelson Mandela attend the 'Unite For A Better World Gala Dinner' on September 2, 2007 at the Hotel de Paris in Monte Carlo, Monaco. (Photo by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images)
20. Nelson Mandela & Naomi Campbell
Model Naomi Campbell and Nelson Mandela attend the Nelson Mandela Fundraising Lunch at the Gallagher Estate prior to the 46664 World Aids Day Concert on November 30, 2007 in Johannesburg, South Africa. (Photo by Dave M. Benett/Getty Images)
21. Nelson Mandela & Wife Graca Machel
Nelson Mandela and Graca Machel at the Press Conference for the 46664 World Aids Day Concert at Gallagher Estate in Gauteng - South Africa, November 30, 2007 (Photo by Michelly Rall/WireImage)
22. Barack Obama Looks Out Window Of Nelson Mandela's Jail Cell
Barack Obama, then US senator for Illinois, looks out of the window of Mandela's jail cell, 20 August 2006, on Robben Island. Obama was visiting the island prison museum, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for about 18 years, as part of a larger visit to the country.(Photo credit: RODGER BOSCH/AFP/GettyImages)
23. Nelson Mandela Hugs Michael Jackson
Former President Nelson Mandela with the King of Pop, Michael Jackson during the King of Pop's SA visit. (Photo by Media24/Gallo Images/Getty Images)
24. Nelson Mandela At His Life Celebration
Nelson Mandela appears onstage during the 46664 Concert In Celebration Of Nelson Mandela's Life held at Hyde Park on June 27, 2008 in London, England. (Photo by Dave Hogan/Getty Images)
25. Nelson Mandela & Wife Graca Machel At His Life Celebration
Nelson Mandela appears onstage with his wife Graca Machel during the 46664 Concert In Celebration Of Nelson Mandela's Life held at Hyde Park on June 27, 2008 in London, England. (Photo by Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images)
26. Nelson Mandela Waves Goodbye
Nelson Mandela leaves the InterContinental Hotel after a photoshoot with celebrity photographer Terry O'Neil on June 26, 2008 in London, England. Mandela is in London in advance of the 46664 concert being held at Hyde Park on Friday the 27th June to celebrate Nelson Mandela's 90th Birthday. (Photo by Chris Jackson/Getty Images)
27. Nelson Mandela Celebrates His 94th Birthday At Home
With Winnie Mandela last year. In 2004, Mandela announced his retirement from public life, but continued his charity work. 'I would like to be remembered not as anyone unique or special, but as part of a great team in this country that has struggled for many years, for decades and even centuries. The greatest glory of living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time you fall."