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Mandela's lifelong struggle still a source of inspiration, strength

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- "Incredibly sad news about Nelson Mandela. There truly are no words to capture what an amazing person he was. If anybody led a life where they never stopped fighting for their beliefs and their people, it was him," our daughter Carrie wrote on "Facebook."

"Thanks to the United Mine Workers and my Dad, when I was seven years old, I had the opportunity to meet Mandela and experience his smile firsthand. While I don't remember the words from his speech, I do vividly remember that as soon as I was lifted to the stage, he immediately came over to greet me.

"This moment captures what kind of character he has. While having no idea who I was, he was eager to come meet me.

"After shaking hands, I got the chance to introduce myself with my full name, hand him a donation that my Dad made to the African National Congress, and give him a drawing I made of two people (one black and one white) holding hands under a rainbow. While my Dad and I have no pictures of this moment, we both will never forget."

Across the top of her drawing, she wrote: "To Nelson Mandela. From Carrie Mandela Nyden."

On the morning of Feb. 11, 1990, Carrie, her sister Laura and I watched television. Laura remembers me crying when a news reporter announced: "After 27 years, unbroken and unbowed, Nelson Mandela walks out of prison."

Three-and-a-half years later, Carrie and I drove to Chicago to hear Mandela speak to a labor rally on July 7, 1993, when Carrie handed him her drawing.

I also got to sit in the balcony of the House of Representatives on June 26, 1990, when Mandela addressed a Joint Session of Congress during his first visit to the United States.

I first learned about Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress shortly after I started college in 1962, quickly coming to admire his courage. In the spring of 1964, we passed out leaflets on the Columbia University campus.

"Demonstrate Against Apartheid & Against the Mandela-Sisulu Trials," the leaflets read, urging people to attend a program at a chapel near the United Nations on June 6 and to demonstrate in front of nearby South African, British and United States missions to the U.N.

Near the end of the Rivonia trial, on April 20, 1964, Mandela said:

"During my lifetime I have dedicated my life 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 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."

Mandela, already serving time in prison since October 1962, was sentenced to life in prison for treason.

When Mandela spoke in Cape Town the day he was released, he closed his speech with those same words.

An inspiration

In 1973, I began teaching sociology at the University of Pittsburgh. In 1976, the Sociology Department denied me another three-year contract as assistant professor.

Sometimes, late at night, I got depressed. Then I thought about Nelson Mandela and started laughing.

My difficulties were a tiny portion of 1 percent of the difficulties Mandela faced every day on Robben Island. A hero can inspire you through hard times of your own.

(In 1977, a federal judge in Pittsburgh, saying my firing was political, ordered the university to pay me the salary I would have earned under a three-year contract renewal.)

When a popular uprising erupted in Soweto in 1976, it was crushed by the apartheid government. I thought the uprising was a harbinger of things to come. The protest showed apartheid could not last.

During his speech on the day he was released, Mandela recalled what happened 30 years earlier.

"Our resort to the armed struggle in 1960 with the formation of the military wing of the ANC, Umkhonto we Sizwe, was a purely defensive action against the violence of apartheid. The factors which necessitated the armed struggle still exist today.

"We have no option but to continue. We express the hope that a climate conducive to a negotiated settlement will be created soon so that there may no longer be the need for the armed struggle."

In prison, Mandela continued to support the resistance movement. In 1985, he refused President P.W. Botha's offer to be released if he denounced protesters who used any form of violence.

Fortunately, the political atmosphere has calmed down today, at least to some extent.

Mandela's graciousness

In his autobiography, "Long Walk To Freedom," Mandela expresses the highest respect for Bram Fischer, the prominent Afrikaner lawyer who could have held a very high position in the apartheid government.

Fischer was the main lawyer representing Mandela, Walter Sisulu and other anti-apartheid activists during the Rivonia trial, He saved them from being sentenced to death.

After the trial was over, Fischer himself was arrested and sentenced to life in prison in 1966, getting released shortly before he died from cancer in May 1975.

"As an Afrikaner whose conscience forced him to reject his own heritage and be ostracized by his own people, he showed a level of courage and sacrifice that was in a class by itself," Mandela wrote. "I fought only against injustice, not my own people."

Promoting forgiveness and redemption, Mandela played a remarkable role bringing South Africans together. Three of his former prison guards at Robben Island sat on the stage with him when he was inaugurated president in May 1994.

In June 1995, Mandela enthusiastically supported the Springboks, the national rugby team hosting the World Cup in Johannesburg. Wearing a Springbok jersey, Mandela was cheered by 62,000 fans, most of them white. The Springboks then won the World Cup against New Zealand's heavily favored team.

Visiting South Africa

 

  • May 2012, my wife Sarah and I visited South Africa. Our daughter Katharine was finishing her final semester at West Virginia University as an exchange student at Stellenbosch University, near Cape Town.
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    The most startling part of our visit was driving from the Cape Town Airport to Stellenbosch. We passed huge townships with tens of thousands of homes built from scrap metal by desperately poor South Africans.

    I had seen photographs of those townships for years. To actually see them, and to meet people living there, was stunning.

    During our trip, I got to do something I fantasized about for years when we visited Robben Island, where Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years in prison.

    Mandela and his fellow prisoners routinely faced exhausting work in the island's lime quarries. Mandela was allowed to see just one visitor, and mail just one letter, every six months.

    When Sarah and I visited the prison, I walked over to his tiny cell and kissed its metal bars.

    Among our souvenirs from that day is a key chain with Mandela wading along a beach with six penguins. Robben Island and the southern Cape are home to a major population of beautiful African penguins -- a species whose future is endangered.

    When Mandela left prison, he said, "The destruction caused by apartheid on our sub-continent is incalculable. The fabric of family life of millions of my people has been shattered. Millions are homeless and unemployed. Our economy lies in ruins and our people are embroiled in political strife."

    His successors -- Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma -- fail to meet his standards in fighting for justice and reform. Both negotiated questionable government contracts, especially defense deals, and became involved in political corruption.

    Economic apartheid still exists. The average white family makes five times the income the average black family does.

    Mandela's heroic "Long Walk To Freedom" is far from over. But his courage and integrity will continue to inspire people in South Africa and around the world.

    Reach Paul J. Nyden at pjnyden@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5164.


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