Read the original column here in The Oregonian.
I was saddened when news of the demise of Nelson Mandela filtered through on Thursday. The announcement jolted me like lightning, bringing back a flood of memories. I was a teenager in Sierra Leone, West Africa, when Madiba (the father) was released from prison in February 1990 after 27 years of incarceration. I do remember that day vividly mainly because throngs of people took to the streets in raucous celebration. The spontaneous street parties carried on into the early morning hours. At the time, even though the name did resonate with me, the significance of the event and the import of his contributions to humanity did not immediately sink in.
That was to come a decade later when in 2001 as part of a delegation of peace activists, we visited the Robben Island prison where he was incarcerated. As I peered through the railings into what was once his cell and toured the facility where he toiled in the sun breaking stones, I could not help but wonder how a man could live through 18 years of such hellish experience and still come out thumping his fist in the air, smiling and demonstrating a willingness to embrace his tormentors.
This was Mandela, the man, the icon. The capacity to turn despair into hope, tragedy into opportunity and setback into a positive learning experience was what made him unique. In prison he learned Afrikaans, the language of his white oppressors. At his inauguration in 1994 he invited one of his jailers. It is little surprise, therefore, that from China, to Russia, to the United States and to my native Sierra Leone, the whole world is in mourning. The somber mood and genuine outpouring of grief is prompted by the realization that the world has lost a true global citizen, a pillar of peace and a symbol of hope for humanity.
At 95, Madiba’s death came as no surprise. He has been seriously ill for the last six months. Most of the medical complications and ailments he suffered in later life (lung infection, kidney failure) emanated from the back-breaking labor on the quarry on Robben Island. His vision and sense of hearing were all but gone. When he was discharged from a Pretoria hospital in September of this year few expected him to make it through the first week. But against all odds, he pulled through. After the media clamor had died down and his squabbling relatives had reached a truce, he passed away peacefully in his home in Johannesburg. Like the clever tactician and strategist he was, he had the last say on how and when he bowed out.
His autobiography “The Long Walk to Freedom” occupies a place of pride among my book collections. As a scholar of conflict resolution who teaches about social justice, human rights, forgiveness, reconciliation, negotiation, diplomacy, and non-violence the life and times of Nelson Mandela provides my students and me rich material. Through his initiative South Africa gave the world the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a justice seeking mechanism that has now become standard practice in post-conflict reconciliation.
Mandela was many things to many people: visionary, reconciler, freedom fighter, and as South Africa’s first democratically elected president, the father of its nascent democracy. He was a role model for government leaders in Africa in particular and the world in general. He willingly handed over power in 1999 after only one term, a rare occurrence in Africa. As a 1993 Nobel peace prize winner, he was an icon, a larger than life personality who embodied the ideals of freedom, peace and justice for oppressed peoples everywhere. He will forever be remembered for successfully guiding his country through some of its most tumultuous times.
Yet he was human, with all the frailties and fallibility that comes with it. Though of royal heritage, he grew up dirt poor in the then Cape Province. To make the best of a disadvantaged upbringing he embarked on a nomadic life, bouncing around the country working menial jobs, studying and learning to lead. He eventually settled in Johannesburg, where he set up practice as a lawyer in 1943, and later as a freedom fighter. He had a complicated marital life. He was married three times, the last at the ripe old age of 80. He briefly dallied with violence when he co-founded Umkhonto Me Sizwe (The Spear of the Nation) in 1961, which became the armed wing of the African National Congress. He quickly realized that the use of violence was counterproductive to the larger struggle. He changed course and embarked on strategic non-violence and civil disobedience to discredit and eventually bring down the apartheid regime.
The legacy of Nelson Mandela is best encapsulated in this quotation at the Rivonia trials in 1964 which eventually sent him to life imprisonment.
“I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination,” he told the court. “I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal for which I hope to live for and to see realized. But my lord, if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
Nelson Mandela the man is dead. Long live Mandela the visionary, the reconciler, the peacemaker!
Vandy Kanyako, PhD, is an assistant professor at Portland State University, where he teaches in the conflict resolution graduate program.