I remember first hearing about Nelson Mandela in 1990 when he was freed after 27 years of imprisonment. I was in 8th grade and just learning about South Africa and their notorious laws on apartheid. It seemed a world away but his story interested me since here in the United States we didn’t have any of the civil rights leaders imprisoned nor get to an older age.
It was phenomenal to watch Mandela go from prison and rise in his political party (African National Congress), and in just three short years win the Nobel Prize for Peace and another year later become the first black president of South Africa. It again seemed a world away but this time because most of us here could not fathom the day a brown skinned man would lead this nation.
Not only did Mandela put the face of a person of color on the South African with leadership but he took them to the world stage quickly. From his initially unpopular stance with backing the national Rugby team in 1995 (which was portrayed in last years movie “Invictus”), to working tirelessly to improve South Africa which hosted the 2010 World Cup soccer tournament, he helped take South Africa from the “Heart of Darkness”, to a respected nation.
But it wasn’t always so easy for Nelson, he like many of the civil rights leaders here stateside, spent the early 1960’s fighting the establishment and their laws on apartheid and eventually landing him in jail in 1964. His last appearance before imprisonment included him giving a four hour speech on civil rights, can you imagine? He faced terrible conditions in first years in prison and it wasn’t until his later years was he finally respected (and with the help of former South African president F.W. DeKlerk), did he finally get his freedom and able to fight apartheid.
And even as he was imprisoned, he wrote and stayed as active as he could (despite not being able to read any newspapers or magazines except the Christian Science Monitor), so that when he did get his freedom (which he called the imprisonment of 10,000 days), he was ready to once again fight for freedom.
Not only did he fight for freedom but he also worked tirelessly to end the AIDS crisis in South Africa and he did it like every fight he every had. He was nonviolent like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was here, he also did not smoke nor drink and believed self control and discipline. He was respected for leading his country through turmoil with class. And true to his word he was only President of South Africa for one term and then turned it over to younger leaders.
Mandela was a the rare civil right leader who lived to old age, was able to achieve the highest leadership in the country and had the wisdom to know when to leave government and even in 2004 he retired from public life, yet still was regarded as an elder statesman.
Few people have achieved so much in life and even fewer have left a legacy and a path for the rest of us to follow.
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