The father of a nation has died, and flags throughout Nelson Mandela’s beloved South Africa were lowered to half-staff yesterday.
Tributes to Nelson Mandela — South Africa’s first black president, after 3 centuries of white domination — extended far beyond the country he helped free from a government-sponsored system of apartheid which, between 1948 and 1994, denied South Africa’s majority equal treatment under the law, in scenes eerily reminiscent of the Jim Crow South.
Upon learning of Mandela’s death yesterday at the age of 95, Harlem’s Apollo Theater quickly adjusted its marquee to read, “He Changed Our World.” President Obama ordered all flags flying throughout Washington, DC, lowered to half-staff. And the South African embassy in Washington, DC, saw passersby leaving flowers and mementos by the statue of Nelson Mandela.
Like America’s own civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., the struggle for equal rights was not something Mandela had to take on. Mandela, too, came from a relatively privileged background, having been born in a village in the Eastern Cape of South Africa to a reigning nobleman. But young Mandela was also bequeathed with a nickname, “Troublemaker,” and he soon lived up to it. As a young man, Mandela enrolled at the University of the Witwatersrandhe in Johannesburg, where he joined the African National Congress, founded decades before to protest injustice at the hands of the government in power.
In the years to come, Mandela and a colleague would open South Africa’s first black law practice. Within a few short years, however, Mandela was arrested on treason charges by the South African government. While Mandela was later acquitted, he went underground, fearing he would be arrested again. Mandela soon helped form a military wing of the ANC, and was arrested again. By 1964, Mandela had been convicted and sentenced to life in prison, and was sent to Robben Island prison off the coast of Cape Town.
Just as America’s own civil rights movement was unfolding, Mandela would go on to spend the next 18 years of his life at Robben Island prison, before being transferred to Pollsmoor Prison in the suburbs of Cape Town. Unlike Dr. King, Mandela’s own renunciation of violence wasn’t always unequivocal. In 1985, when South Africa’s president, P.W. Botha, offered to free Mandela if he renounced violence, Mandela refused, saying the government must first abolish apartheid.
Mandela was later transferred to a third prison, and the winds of political change soon followed, first with Botha’s meeting with Mandela – the first publicly acknowledged meeting between Mandela and a government official – and later, with new president F.W. de Klerk’s pledge to phase out apartheid. De Klerk also went on to lift the 30-year ban on what came to be known as “Mandela’s group,” the ANC.
Finally, in February 1990 — after 27 years of imprisonment — justice prevailed and Mandela was released. Now 71 years old, Mandela soon made good on his pledge to end violence with apartheid’s dismantlement; the ANC ordered the immediate suspension of its guerilla tactics. Mandela and F.W. de Klerk would go on to share the Nobel Peace Prize in December 1993.
Today, Mandela’s legacy is assured, with tributes to a giant among men reverberating throughout the world from civic protestors and world leaders alike, in such disparate places as Kiev, Ukraine, to the West Bank and Israel, as well as in India, Iran, and London, where Prime Minister David Cameron declared, “A great light has gone out in the world.”
That great light also came to see a universal bridge, in uniting people of differing faiths and backgrounds, not just through political cause but through something as simple as sports. Mandela rejoiced when his home country was named the host of the 2010 Soccer World Cup, making what would become his final public appearance, at the game’s final match.
For Mandela, this final scene was, in many ways, a validation of the new South Africa that the man, known simply to his countrymen as Madiba, had helped create.