Friday, December 6, 2013

Thank you, Nelson Mandela.

My freshman year of college was remarkable, not just for the obvious reasons of being my first year "on my own", away from my family. I started college in August, 1989, and had no idea of the amazing events that would take place that (academic) year. 

First, in the late fall, the Berlin Wall fell. The symbol of The Cold War, and the ideals that came with it, gone. I remember watching on my 13" tv, in my dorm room, as people came together with sledge hammers and power tools to make it happen, and seeing East Berliners & West Berliners shaking hands and hugging, without guards in-between. It was so amazing to me. 

On winter break that year, Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife were executed, in another sign of communism breaking in the soviet bloc. While not exactly a joyous occasion (for me at least), I understood why and how it happened - and still marveled at the power of people coming together in a cause for freedom and unity. 

In February, 1990, Nelson Mandela was freed from the prison in which he had been held for 27 years - longer than I had been alive. His, and Steven Biko's, stories were the first present-day struggles for freedom, which brought me to study, and protest, apartheid. And especially after Biko's death and the manner in which he died, Mr. Mandela's release gave me hope. Hope that the world might not be on a complete course for disaster. 

That feeling took a slight turn, when the amazing artist and AIDS activist, Keith Haring, died just a few days after Mandela's release.....but still persisted. 

For my parent's generation, they'd gone from a 1950s innocence of life, to the Cuban Missle Crisis, JFK's assassination, MLK, Jr.'s assassination, Robert Kennedy's assassination, the Vietnam War (and all that brought with it), Nixon & Watergate. The effects of these historical events occurred to me as a true low-point in American hopes for the future. 

As I was growing up, my generation experienced the hostages in Iran being held for over a year; energy crises; the beginnings of religious conservatism with Reagan's regime; the always present threat of nuclear war which was an off-shoot of the larger Cold War; the rain forests being cut down; The Troubles in Ireland and with it hunger strikes & the death of Bobby Sands and others in the H-block; the AIDS crisis coming to a head; and apartheid in South Africa. 

I wasn't able, at the time, to realize the effects these threats and the weight of the events had on me, but now, in my middle years, I realize how unsafe I felt, overall. If it wasn't my personal health choices that might do me in, it was the politicians and/or governments of the world which might cease my existence on this planet, through ego and stupidity. 

On February 11, 1990, when Nelson Mandela walked out of prison - finally - with his characteristic smile, holding hands with his then-wife, Winnie, and surrounded by his countrymen, that feeling of being unsafe began to crack a little. 

I interpret it as the first time I felt I had made a difference in the world. A very small, infinitesimal difference, as a young white woman from middle America - but a difference none-the-less. It was the first time, I realized how much large groups of people, with a vision, with a purpose that was bigger than themselves, could actually accomplish. 
  • It is never my custom to use words lightly. If twenty-seven years in prison have done anything to us, it was to use the silence of solitude to make us understand how precious words are and how real speech is in its impact on the way people live and die.
    - South Africa, July 14, 2000 

One of the main reasons I believe Mandela is beloved and cherished by so many people who never met him and now, will never have a chance, is that in spite of everything he went through, and all that he experienced, he never lost his enthusiasm for the human spirit. He always had hope. 

I expect there were things that occurred in the struggle to end apartheid that were not very nice, and I know that hard decisions and actions were taken. If not by Mandela himself, then those that acted on his words. In a struggle of this magnitude, there are always decisions on both sides, that in hindsight, might not have been the most humane. But I hold no doubts that Mr. Mandela was human, and I don't feel that he ever believed himself to be anything but human, with flaws.

This morning on NPR's Morning Edition, Renee Montagne reflected on Mr. Mandela and her closing words, as well as the emotion behind them, really resonated with me. She was paraphrasing President Obama, in his comments of Mr. Mandela yesterday, when he said that in our lifetime we will never again see a leader of this caliber. Ms. Montagne added, "I know in my lifetime, nobody and no one like him,...will ever come again."

I am so happy that Mr. Mandela had 95 years on this earth, to live with a modicum of freedom and compassion, to see his family grow and flourish in its now-many-generations, to be a beacon of humility, compassion, and a strong advocate for human beings. I am a better human being for having been able to grow up and watch him flourish.

  • When a man has done what he considers to be his duty to his people and his country, he can rest in peace.
    - Interview for
    Mandela, 1994
Rest in peace, Nelson Mandela.

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