The world stopped in 1990 to witness the first steps of freedom of one man, Nelson Mandela, after his 27 years of imprisonment. Today, the world celebrates the 93rd birthday of one of the world’s greatest leaders. That he has walked upon this earth has changed the course of history, not only for South Africa but for the entire globe.
Born of royalty on 18 July 1918, he has lived his 93 years in the service of oppressed South Africans, and he is a beacon of light that inspires freedom, peace and justice across the African continent and around the world for people of all races, creeds, and cultures.
Mandela’s iconic status was forged during his years on Robben Island as a political prisoner, and in the imagination of many of us who grew up knowing him from a single image taken during his incarceration.
I first spoke to Madiba in 1999 and met the real man in the Oval Office when he visited President George W. Bush in November 2001. I met him several times more when I served as the United States’ Ambassador to South Africa, including arranging and participating in his last visit to the White House in May 2005.
Mandela was and is a towering figure of great wisdom, humor and kindness. Meeting him left you, and indeed continues to leave you, uplifted and feeling that you’ve been in the presence of a saint. One of my proudest moments was helping to put America on the right side of history in July 2008 when Mandela and his ANC colleagues were removed from the U.S. terror list that dated back to apartheid days in the 1980s.
Mandela’s early journey befits his given name, Rolihlahla, meaning “to pull a branch of a tree,” or more commonly, “troublemaker” which he was to the architects of racial discrimination in South Africa. He never faltered in challenging the Afrikaner-dominated National Party’s “apartheid” policy to segregate the races and subjugate the majority African population from 1948 until Mandela’s election as president of South Africa in the country’s first democratic election in 1994. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993 with F.W. de Klerk, head of the National Party, for their efforts to end apartheid and usher in a democratic political system.
Voluntarily stepping down from political power in 1999 after serving only one term, Mandela stepped into a more enduring legacy as one of the world’s most respected and influential statesmen. The fall of the Tunisian government and riots against life presidents in Egypt, Yemen and beyond reveal the continuing relevance of Mandela’s example.
Mandela honed his leadership abilities in the struggle as an activist, leading student strikes in 1940 at Fort Hare University College. He later opened a law practice with fellow lawyer, Oliver Tambo, to help the black population access justice by providing free and low-cost legal counsel and representation. He joined the African National Congress (ANC) political party in 1943 and helped to build its movement for a non-racial South Africa as founder and president of the ANC Youth League. In 1961, Madiba cofounded Umkhonto we Sizwe (the Spear of the Nation), the ANC’s armed wing. He did this after years of unsuccessful non-violent struggle, and increasing government repression and massacres, including banning the ANC and firing on unarmed demonstrators, killing 69 and wounding hundreds at Sharpeville in 1960. He was elected president of the ANC in 1990 and has remained a loyal member ever since.
Mandela has been a Freedom Fighter of the Highest Order. His cause has been noble, his vision clear, and his methods just. He has taught us the power of patience, perseverance, and humility. His sacrifice frees us to walk courageously in truth for the good of all human kind. On Madiba’s 93rd birthday, as the world commemorates Nelson Mandela International Day, we are reminded that today – and every day – his contributions and his example are worthy of celebration.
About the authors: Jendayi E. Frazer is a Distinguished Service Professor at Carnegie Mellon University and former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, 2005-2009, and U.S. Ambassador to South Africa, 2004-2005. She is also Adjunct Senior Fellow for Africa at the Council on Foreign Relations and is an Africa.com featured blogger.
Valandra is Assistant Professor in the School of Social Work at St. Catherine University/University of St. Thomas.