I learned who Nelson Mandela was through MTV and my favorite rock stars of the 1980s. He was a cause celebre, in the truest definition, and I didn’t even learn a single fact about him in school until my feet landed on the University of Alabama, in August 1988. I watched the news as a teenager and knew that the American government through the Reagan Administration supported the Apartheid Regime, a white only minority that denied the black majority to vote. But I had no clue what that meant. By the time February 11, 1990 rolled around I was a working journalist at a public radio station on campus and my knowledge had increased. Nelson Mandela was a political prisoner similar to the Revolutionary war figures our Founding Fathers revered. I remember standing in the middle of the radio station news room watching CNN as Mandela walked out of prison, smiling, waving, and getting into a silver BMW. Only 19 1/2 years-old, I was the newest and youngest person at the station so I stifled my emotional reaction. No one else did. I pivoted about the room and saw wet eyes and huge smiles.
It’s important to know that Nelson Mandela is a man who transcended politics. This isn’t stopping his critics on the right from calling him a communist terrorist and worse (yes, trust me, it’s the internet and cable news, there are worse insults). Mandela, like most great men, was complicated. He deserves more than the Wikipedia bio and list of accomplishments. By the time Apartheid took hold in South Africa in 1948, Mandela was a thirty-year-old boxer who wished to be a politician for his oppressed people. Ten years later he was one man’s Freedom Fighter and another’s terrorist plotting to overthrow a brutal government. The truth is, he was both of these. And he admitted as much. Nelson Mandela, according to then South African law, was a guilty man imprisoned for 27 years. No reasonable person disputes this. But imagine you’re a member of The Tea Party right now and you oppose the Obama Administration and you conspire to do so through violence because you believe in what you’re doing is right or vice versa politically. Then, thirty years later you’re proven correct? Mandela’s predicament later became beyond politics, it was about dignity, respect, and equality.
Twenty-seven years is a very long time. It’s the dictionary definition of a generation plus two more years. It’s easy for some, especially those who wish to defend the United States political positions of the 1980s through their beloved President Ronald Reagan, to pay attention to only what Nelson Mandela did, said, and was in the 1950s and 1960s. But what happened after February 11, 1990 is why reverence of Mandela is important. Could you walk out of prison after 27 years, embrace and forgive your jailers, then work with your enemies to make your country a better place? Because that’s what he did between 1994 and 1999 as South Africa’s first black President. In 1995, in a surreal gesture of reconciliation, President Nelson Mandela walked down the steps of his helicopter into a whites-only community to have a cup of tea with 94-year-old Betsie Verwoerd, the widow of a former prime minister known as the architect of apartheid.
Only two non-fiction books have affected me – The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Long Walk To Freedom. I grew up in the Atlanta, Georgia suburbs, sheltered and among Deep South prejudice. I went to high school with five black students and three of Hispanic origin. What struck me most about both books was the unflinching, brutal honesty of two men who sinned, sought redemption, then spent the last years of their lives trying to make the world a better place and themselves better men. All I can do as a writer with a blog is implore you to read them.
Sometimes the part about being an American that is the hardest is having enough self-awareness that your country isn’t always right or even isn’t always better. During the 1980s, our government fought against Nelson Mandela’s release, branded him a terrorist, and it took very brave liberals and moderates to help defeat that. Later on, Mandela stood up to George W. Bush on the Iraq War. This infuriated many. I think we know Mandela was proven somewhat right. Nelson Mandela always stood up for the powerless, the neglected, and the poor. And he always stood up against the powerful when they were wrong. It helped him rise above politics and speak for the true definition and deep meaning of the word Freedom. So if you’re wondering why people all over the world of different backgrounds and persuasions are mourning his death at the age of 95, you’ve got 781 words.
Here’s the first song I ever heard mention the man’s name, The Specials with Free Nelson Mandela.
Stuff your stockings with my books:
The Ballad of Helene Troy, an underdog story about a female musician in New York City, and Soul To Body, about an ex-1990s guitar player trying to raise his teenage daughter after the death of his wife, her mother, are available, digitally, on Amazon.com for your kindles, and in paperback from Lulu.com