Only minutes after talking to Lisa Vives, executive director of Global Information Network, someone I hadn’t spoken to for years, about appearing on a panel to discuss Danny Schechter’s book on Nelson Mandela titled “Madiba—A to Z,” breaking news interrupted programming Thursday evening to announce that Nelson Mandela was dead.
I was as surprised to hear from Lisa as I was stunned to hear that Mandela, 95, had “joined the ages” as more than one reporter observed about the great South African icon.
In the summer of 1990, I was among the thousands jamming the intersection at 125th Street and Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. Boulevard to hear the recently liberated Mandela speak. The moment was made all the more memorable to see such local stalwarts as Elombe Brath, Dhoruba bin Wahad, and Dr. Betty Shabazz sharing the stage with him.
Four years later I was in Cape Town to cover the elections and it was absolutely amazing to see the long lines of voters, some of them stretching across the countryside, with people trembling in the chilly dawn patiently waiting to participate in a democracy that wasn’t theirs in the draconian days of apartheid. Many said they had waited years to vote, so to wait a little longer was of no consequence.
It was a seemingly endless celebration when Mandela was elected president and the news came in the late hours in the same, though less ceremonious way current President Jacob Zuma brought the sadness to his nation.
Mandela or affectionately known as Madiba, his tribal name, died at 8:50 pm local time, and Zuma said “Our nation has lost its greatest son.” And the world lost a man who exemplified human rights and was the personification of a freedom fighter.
When I traveled to South Africa in 2001 as a delegate to the World Conference Against Racism, I made a side trip to Soweto with hopes of seeing Mandela or to speak with his former wife, Winnie. By that time Mandela had moved to his ancestral homeland of Qunu and Winnie was not at home, which was a veritable shrine. Neither was there but I was able to meet other family members and neighbors who showered me with love and respect. Later, during the conference in Durban, Mandela’s name was often evoked with reverence and nobility, words that only faintly comport the power of his charisma and persona.
I made two other memorable trips to South Africa; one with Gordon Parks and the other on my own in 1988 where I was visiting Soweto and taking photos when the South African police surrounded me, took my camera, and stripped all the film from it and threw it to the ground and trampled it. Someone had posted an image of Mandela on a crumbling wall and my photo of that was among the other negatives under the foot of the police officer. All images of Mandela were forbidden and they immediately extinguished that image of him.
What Congressman Charles Rangel conveyed in his memory of Mandela echoed my estimation of his influence. “I have long thought of Nelson Mandela to be the epitome of Sainthood, the Harlem representative related in a press statement. “He was a visionary and selfless leader, who was willing to make great sacrifices in the pursuit of freedom and justice.”
During his visit to Harlem, Mandela cited the connection between Africans and African Americans, indicating that “our struggle is your struggle, your struggle is ours.” He was a living bridge that connected the civil rights movement and the subsequent Black liberation struggle in America to the anti-apartheid movement that he rejoined after being freed from the penitentiary in 1990. Three years later he shared the Nobel Peace Prize with F.W. de Klerk, who under pressure from the divestment movement had freed Mandela.
Mandela embodied the fight against racism no matter where it reared its ugly head, and he reminded the crowd in Harlem that the African National Congress drew its inspiration from the NAACP, which was founded only a year before its South African counterpart.
I never had a chance to interview Mandela but that’s less important than taking my resolve from his dedicated commitment to end the dehumanization of our people. In so many ways he reminded me of Malcolm X, who spent six and half years behind bars; and Mandela brought to mind the great thinker and activist W.E.B. Du Bois who also lived to be 95. From the dregs of prison Malcolm and Mandela rose to world renown and the pantheon of leadership. And like Du Bois, Mandela was a fearless warrior, of great intellect, and the mind and body of a Muhammad Ali, perhaps the only visage more globally recognizable than his.
Yes, he is with yesterday’s seven thousand years, as the immortal poet Omar Khayyam once wrote, but his legacy is one of permanence and immutability, and I recommend that our young people in particular take some time to see film “Mandela—A Long Walk to Freedom,” or better yet get a copy of his autobiography and help to keep his memory alive and well.
And certainly tune into the weeklong, if not month-long commemorations that will take place in all the major cities of South Africa, and perhaps in other cities of the world where his integrity is unimpeachable, his memory unforgettable.