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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