December 12, 2013
By Jennifer Bihm
President and First Lady Obama joined former presidents George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter December 10 in Johannesburg to celebrate the life of Nelson Mandela, who died of complications from a lung infection last Thursday. The U.S. presidential team was part of a group of world leaders and dignitaries, who came to pay tribute to the anti- apartheid icon, affectionately known by his countrymen as “Madiba” a tribal name from his original village Qunu. Tens of thousands of “regular” citizens also attended the memorial, which precedes Mandela’s burial, to take place December 15 in Qunu.
As if they had known his destiny, Mandela’s parents gave him the name Rolihlahla when he was born in the village of Mvezo, July 18, 1918. In the Xhosa language, Rolihlahla commonly translates to “troublemaker.” When he was still an infant, his family became political outcasts in Mvezo, forcing them to move to Qunu, where eventually, Mandela became the first in his family to attend school.
At school, Rolihlahla became Nelson (a common practice in schools was to give African children English names). When his father fell ill and died in about 1927, 9 year old Mandela moved to Mqhekezweni, the provincial capital of Thembuland with Chief Jongintaba Dalindyebo, a political ally of his father, who adopted him. He continued his education, ending up at the University of Fort Hare where he studied English, anthropology, politics, native administration, and Roman Dutch law.
His first bout with activism also began at Fort Hare, where he joined the student majority in protesting poor conditions at the university. But, Mandela couldn’t stay in Mqhekezweni. The chief had arranged an undesirable marriage for him, causing him to flee.
He landed in Johannesburg in 1941, where he started out in poverty, working menial jobs until he decided to finish earning his BA and enter law school. He joined the African National Congress Youth League, a small group within the general ANC with goal of starting a grass roots movement among the poor and voiceless in South Africa who suffered under the apartheid regime. The regime, made officially legal after a general election in 1948, was severe for blacks.
Under it, blacks lost their citizenship, trapping them in extreme poverty and forcing them to suffer its debilitating effects. Initially, Mandela and the ANCYL led peaceful boycotts, strikes and other acts of civil disobedience and non-cooperation. They wanted full citizenship, redistribution of land, trade union rights, and free and education.
But twenty years of nonviolence didn’t seem to be getting results. Mandela co-founded Umkhonto we Sizwe, a group dedicated to taking up arms and declaring guerilla warfare against Apartheid. He and other ANC leaders were eventually sentenced to life in prison for sabotage and other political offenses.
His twenty seven year imprisonment sparked a litany of protests and demands for his freedom throughout the world. In 1982 Mandela had a choice. Stop his armed struggle against Apartheid and be released from prison or remain.
He refused the offer, he said, until blacks received the right to vote. He was released in 1990 and in 1994 became South Africa’s first black president.
News of his death reverberated around the globe, garnering commentary from dignitaries, celebs and civilians alike.
“His struggle was your struggle. His triumph was your triumph,” president Obama said during the celebration. “Your dignity and hope found expression in his life, and your freedom, your democracy is his cherished legacy. The world thanks you for sharing Nelson Mandela with us.”
“Our hearts are heavy with the news of Nelson Mandela's passing,” said Essence magazine Editor in Chief Vanessa Bush.
“The life of Nelson Mandela is a singular example of devotion and dignity in the face of unthinkable oppression. As a fearless ambassador for equality across the globe, his legacy is beyond measure.”
“In my lifetime, I have never met a world leader more humble or more gracious than Nelson Mandela,” said Senator Rod Wright who met Mandela during his visit to Los Angeles 23 years ago and who is a member of the Los Angeles Free South Africa Movement led by Congresswoman Maxine Waters.
“He was, in my eyes, a giant of a man. I will always be amazed that he was able to grow so much as a person and accomplish all that he did having sacrificed so many years of his life in the isolation of prison.
While it is certainly sad to lose someone as great as Nelson Mandela, it brings me some peace to know that he lived to such an age that he got to experience a rich life with his children and grandchildren after his release. We think of him for his presidency and his Nobel Peace Prize, but his family was likely his greatest joy.”