Remembering Nelson Mandela – A Hero For Our Time

December 16, 2013 | Civic Engagement, Diversity & Inclusion

By: Rob Jones

Nelson Mandela has been a personal hero of mine for as long as I can remember. As a young person, I spent many years in the anti-apartheid movement. The inherent injustice of White minority rule was something I couldn’t wrap my mind around or accept. My friends and I wanted to DO something to help. Standing there as a monument to personal integrity and commitment, was Nelson Mandela. The Mandela who inspired us was a man fiercely committed to re-making his society into one that worked for everyone. In a time when 10% of South Africa’s population had control of over 80% of the land and economic resources, standing firm for democracy was a radical notion. Mandela was a figure who understood that the way forward needed to thread the needle between creating justice for the many while continuing to allow room for the few.

There were many voices then that called for a reversal of roles as the just outcome in the new South Africa. An “eye for an eye” was a rallying cry for many of the young Black men and women in the townships. They saw the new South Africa as a country that would make no room for the Whites who had made no room and taken so much from them. Conditions for Blacks were dire then. Poverty was rampant and brutal; and hope and opportunity were hard to find. Unjust laws circumscribed every aspect of life, from where you could live and travel, what work you could do, who you could marry, to what education was available to your children – and the minority government regularly used force and violence to enforce them. This oppression was being visited on Nelson Mandela’s people, he was raised by chiefs and traditional leaders in the Transkei region to have a vision of making life better for his community. Yet, in the midst of these brutal conditions, Mandela and his colleagues in the ANC remained committed to building a non-racial organization to fight for and build a new South Africa that would be acknowledge the rights of everyone – no matter their race.

This was the Mandela who was our hero.

  • He was a man of monumental integrity and commitment – He was willing to face the death penalty rather than renounce his vision and beliefs.
  • He spoke truth to power – respectfully, publicly, and with a clarity of vision that saw a future built by and for everyone in his country.
  • He stayed in prison, long after he had been offered freedom, because he was unwilling to be “free” in a society in which that freedom was circumscribed for others and himself.
  • He held a radical belief in democracy and equality.
  • He never called for vengeance or retribution, and used his personal power and legitimacy to quell those calls by others.
  • He was quick to smile and laugh and see the positive in many situations and people.
  • He saw the humanity in everyone, no matter their race, position, wealth or power.
  • He would befriend rather than demonize his jailer.
  • He was secure enough in his own power and abilities to be truly humble and self-effacing, allowing the light to shine on others first.
  • He was willing to share the Nobel Prize with the man who both kept him in prison and ultimately freed him, calling him “my friend, F.W. DeKlerk.”
  • He supported the creation of a “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” to allow healing while not papering over the offenses of the past.
  • He rose to the pinnacle of power in his country, and walked away from that power because he believed so deeply in democracy and the power of people to shape their own destiny.

I am very proud to have played a small part in Nelson Mandela’s “Long Walk to Freedom.” My friends and I organized a sit-in at Columbia University that resulted in the university divesting from South Africa.

One of the highlights of my life was when Nelson Mandela shook my hand after his release from prison. This took place when I was part of the group organizing the “Mandela Freedom Tour”.  In 1990, I was one of many working behind the scenes to make his concert and rally at Yankee Stadium a success. Before going onstage to speak, Mandela took the time to come back and thank us personally, shaking our hands making each of us feel that, for that moment, we were the most important person in the room. Nelson Mandela talked the talk of freedom and he walked the walk – for all of us.

Hamba Khale Madiba (Go well, our elder and leader)