President Obama put it best when referring to the death of Nelson Mandela: “Today he’s gone home, and we have lost one of the most influential, courageous and profoundly good human beings that any of us will share time with on this Earth.”
Borrowing appropriately from a famous quote by Edwin M. Stanton at President Abraham Lincoln’s death, one first black president said of another: “He no longer belongs to us. He belongs to the ages.”
Mandela was larger than life, not just for black South Africans for whom he spent nearly three decades in jail – 18 at the brutal Robben Island Prison, a former leper colony off the coast of Cape Town – but for oppressed and hopeful people everywhere.
Despite all the indignities throughout his life and especially in that prison, where he served as a mentor to his fellow prisoners, Mandela did not emerge in 1990 as a bitter man.
Instead, he stood with the white minority leadership – President F.W. de Klerk, with whom Mandela would eventually share the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993. A year later, he would vote for the first time in his life – for himself, as South Africa’s president. He served one five-year term before retiring from office, but not from the cause of freedom.
Obama said Mandela inspired his own activism. That was certainly true for many people across American campuses who pitched tents on school grounds – where they remained for prolonged periods – in protest of apartheid continents away. The strains of the civil rights movement still played strong here, heightening awareness of the imperative to disinvest in South Africa and, more important, to free Mandela.
The man born on July 18, 1918, into a royal family of the Xhosa-speaking Thembu tribe in the South African village of Mvezo where his father was a chief, would become a symbol of greatness.
In his vast country, Mandela fought apartheid, the racial segregation through legislation by National Party governments that kept the black majority in the very depths of existence.
South Africa stood as a blazing symbol of inequality from the Population Registration Act of 1950, which provided the basic framework of apartheid by classifying all South Africans by race. A new constitution took effect in 1994, enfranchising blacks and other groups, and subsequent elections propelled a coalition government with a nonwhite majority into office and Mandela at the helm.
The depths of the inequality had prevented the black majority from voting and gaining access to political power. And that was just the tip of the daily humiliation that Mandela, as a young man with the African National Congress, fought against.
He became involved in the movement against racial discrimination. During that time he forged relationships with both black and white activists, joining the African National Congress in 1944. He worked with fellow party members, including Oliver Tambo, to establish the organization’s youth league, the ANCYL.
Mandela’s reputation only grew when, in the mid-1950s, he was forced underground. His actions later in co-founding and becoming the first leader of Umkhonto we Sizwe, or “Spear of the Nation,” also known as MK, a new armed wing of the ANC, would have been unrecognizable to those who knew only the man in later life.
Always under intense government scrutiny, it came as no surprise that in the early 1960s he was sentenced to life in prison after evidence was found implicating him and other activists who were tried for sabotage, treason and violent conspiracy.
This was the so-called Rivonia Trial, which lasted eight months and attracted international attention. It was then that Mandela spoke these immortal words: “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.”
He truly was one of the great men of the 20th century.