I’ve never been interested in meeting famous people but I would have given a vital body part to have met Nelson Mandela or failing that, hear him speak in person.
The closest I’ve come is a visit to a few of the places that will always be connected to him and to his “ideal of a democratic and free society” for which he declared in 1964, that he was “prepared to die.”
“During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
–Excerpted from Nelson Mandela’s statement from the dock at the opening of his trial on charges of sabotage, Supreme Court of South Africa, Pretoria, April 20 1964.
We don’t hear anyone anymore state so openly that they are prepared to die for their beliefs – and mean it. So many of us are motivated more by money than by our beliefs. People like Mandela could be a dying breed.
I don’t remember how old I was when I became aware of Nelson Mandela. But I lived in a country that in 1950, before I was even born, had called for a ban on imports from South Africa as a way of protesting the “segregation policy” that was adopted by the government in 1948.
And by 1957, before Jamaica had even gained her own independence from Britain, the government had banned all trade with South Africa, becoming the first country to do so.
I don’t remember when I became aware of Mandela but his commitment to his ideal made me feel deep respect and pride in being black. The rest of us play at being courageous, fearless and principled. Mandela embodied it. He was our hero and we embraced him as if he had been born on Jamaican soil.
At university in Canada, I got involved in fundraising, attended lectures when speakers were able to get out, and educated myself about the ‘struggle.’ My cohorts and I knew the activists and in our discussions, referred to them by their first names – Walter (Sisulu), Oliver (Tambo), Joe (Slovo), Steve (Biko), Chris (Hani), Robert (Sobukwe), Hector (Pieterson), Nelson and Winnie. We carried passbooks, the identification card that black South Africans were required to carry when they ventured outside their homelands, and words like intransigent, which was used to describe the apartheid regime, became part of the vocabulary of the struggle.
By the time I moved to Washington, DC, the boycott of South Africa had picked up steam as celebrities showed up daily to be arrested.
Like the fall of the Berlin Wall, I never believed I’d live to see apartheid dismantled and Mandela released from jail. My heart filled with pride when I saw him raise his clenched fist as he exited Victor Verser Prison with Winnie.
Nelson Mandela’s Cell at Robben Island
Several times during the ferry ride to Robben Island, I swallowed lumps in my throat. I didn’t want to cry. Despite the efforts of our jovial tour guide, an older South African woman sitting in a seat across the aisle from me wept openly as our bus neared the prison. When we saw the house where Robert Sobukwe was confined in solitary and away from the general population, I fought back tears.
As my friends and I arrived at the cell where Mandela spent 18 years, the words of Bob Marley’s song, Duppy Conquerer, floated into my head.
The bars could not hold me / Force could not control me, now / They try to keep me down / But Jah put I around / Yes, I’ve been accused (many times) / And wrongly abused, now / But through the powers of the most-high / They’ve got to turn me loose.
We felt rooted to a spot just outside Mandela’s cell. I remember staring at the place on the floor where Madiba would have slept on a few blankets for all those years and felt a wave of anger bubbling up inside me.
How could we treat each other so horribly?
That Mandela held no bitterness is a testament to the person he is. But it wasn’t just Mandela. Our guide, a former prisoner at Robben Island, also held no rancor. His face was serene, his voice soft with no hint of bitterness. When I asked why he came back to a place so horrific, he said he and other former prisoners wanted to tell their story. At the end of the tour, I reached for his hand to thank him but my words dissolved into tears as the years of hurt and pain locked in those grey walls came rushing out. I sobbed uncontrollably.
Watching and Waiting. Time to Let Mandela Go
For days now, I’ve been watching the news anxious for any tidbit of information on Madiba’s condition, torn between wanting him to pull through to celebrate one last birthday (his 95th) and accepting that it’s time now for us to let him go.
Years of unspeakable hardships – physical, emotional, psychological – have taken their toll. Nelson Mandela has done his part. It’s time for him to rest and for those who remain to carry on his legacy.
When the news reported that Mandela was in critical condition, I emailed my friends who visited Soweto, Robben Island, and Victor Verser Prison with me. One wrote back that she was “happy to have walked in Mandela’s footsteps.” So am I.