Tribute to Madiba: A Smile that Called for Transformation

This post originally appeared on December 10, 2013, and is reposted now with minor editorial changes.

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.—Nelson R. Mandela, 1964

           Madiba is at peace.  Our thoughts are with those he loved and with the people of South Africa for whom he gave his freedom and mandela votinglife.  Lawyer, revolutionary, civil and human rights advocate, political prisoner, master political strategist, statesman, democratic political leader, Nobel Peace Prize laureate–a salute and gratitude to him for having dedicated his life to making positive social change for the people of South Africa and for the world.  Yes, a single individual, working with dedicated social movements, can begin to change the world.  His greatest legacy will be the continuing struggle for justice carried on by its peoples. We are not really ready for him to leave now. But we celebrate his extraordinary life and his singular impact on the world, nevertheless.  Nothing more can be asked of him; a life truly well-lived.

          We remember the violence and racism of the apartheid regime and the many who gave their lives and freedom to end it.  But because of Mandela and other great leaders and activists, there are also all those unforgettable moments of inspiration and hope:

  •  Protests and arrests outside the apartheid regime’s embassies.
  • Shantytowns on university campuses in solidarity with the people of South Africa.
  • Free South Africa movement signs on the lawns of religious institutions across the globe.
  • Artists and Athletes Against Apartheid and millions singing “Free, Nelson Mandela!”
  • The U.S. Senate Override of President Reagan’s veto of the 1986 Anti-Apartheid Act.
  • The Free South Africa Movement organized by TransAfrica and other groups in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s.
  • Freed political prisoner Nelson R. Mandela and anti-apartheid activist Winnie Mandela walking hand in hand as Mandela was released from 27 years of imprisonment..
  • The 1994 first democratic elections in South Africa, with miles-long lines of African people who had never previously been allowed to vote.
  • President Mandela taking the oath of office.
  • President Mandela stepping down from his term in office.
  • The recognition and elaboration of social, economic, and cultural rights; the prohibition on the death penalty.
  • The voices of ordinary witnesses testifying before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
  • Mandela advocating for HIV/AIDS prevention and accessible treatment.
  • Madiba and freedom fighter and lawyer Graca Machel finding friendship, political engagement, love, and companionship as he retired from public life.

 Then, there was that smile.  Some commentators interpret Mr. Mandela’s famous light up the room smile as “harmless” or “conciliatory.”  To me it was a smile of joy at finally being able to spend time with his children and grandchildren and a smile at his own wry sense of humor that helped sustain him and his fellow prisoners for so many years.  It was also a smile of expectation and transformation.  For this iron-willed man, that smile challenged his former enemies, comrades, and admirers alike not simply to continue as before, but to transform–to become our best selves.  It was a smile that said, “anything is possible, why don’t you try?”

God bless Madiba. God bless Africa.  Amandla! Awethu!

(photo credit)

Apartheid and the Dunnes Stores workers strike, 1984-1987

Picture via In 1984, Mary Manning, an employee of Dunnes Stores, one of Ireland’s largest supermarkets, refused to check out an Outspan grapefruit. She was upholding a Union directive that none of its members would handle South African fruit or vegetables in protest to the apartheid regime. Manning was suspended immediately, bringing about a strike that was to last almost three years. The picketers lived on £21 a week for the duration of the strike, with some even losing their homes as a result. The strike ultimately ended in a ban imposed by the Irish government on the import of all products from apartheid South Africa. It is a fascinating chapter in the history of apartheid. In the words of one of the strikers: “Twelve workers got government to change the law. Even one person can make a change.”. There is a full interview with Cathryn O’Reilly, one of the Dunnes Stores workers, here. Some of Mary Manning’s thoughts on Mandela’s passing can be found here.

Farewell, Madiba

Nelson_Mandela-2008_(edit)Heartbreaking to learn that Nelson Mandela passed today. It’s hard to express in words the influence this lion of a man has had on South Africa and the world; suffice to say that he was one of a handful of true heroes of our time.  Mandela’s humility and humanity together with his smarts and determination revolutionized his nation and set standards for political leadership that few others in our lifetime will achieve.  Our hearts are with South Africans as they mourn the loss of the founder of their post-apartheid state.  We are all a little bit poorer today for this loss, but so much richer for the many contributions Mandela made during his lifetime.   Amandla!

(photo credit)