“No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”
Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom (1995)
July 18, 1918 to December 5, 2013
I have always been in awe of this great man. I remember the protests at the South African Embassy in 1984 when it became de rigueur to be arrested for protesting against apartheid. We were living in Northern Virginia at the time, so it was constantly on the local news. By the time the protests began, Nelson Mandela had been in prison for over 20 years, having been convicted in 1964 and sentenced to life imprisonment for conspiracy and sabotage against the state of South Africa along with Walter Sisulu, Ahmed Kathrada, Raymond Mhlaba, Govan Mbeki, Elias Motsoaledi, Denis Goldberg and Andrew Mlangeni. Mandela was released in 1990, after spending 27 years in prison.
In 1993 Nelson Mandela and Frederik Willem de Klerk were awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace “for their work for the peaceful termination of the apartheid regime, and for laying the foundations for a new democratic South Africa.”
“If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner.”
But it was what happened in 1994 that really sticks with me: South Africa’s first free elections. The news reports and images were powerful, and they have stayed with me all these years.
It was not until April of 1994 that South Africa’s first all-race elections were held. Lines for the election stretched for more than a mile in some areas and with voters waiting up to 12 hours to cast their ballots in others. Though many feared violence would erupt, over the four day election period from April 26 to April 29, but peace remained in tact. More than 17 million black South Africans over the age of 18 voted for the first time during those four days (from Avoice)
I remember the historical first free election in South Africa in 1994, the articles about the long lines of people waiting hours and hours for the privilege of voting. The election lasted over four days because that’s how long it took to process everyone who wanted to vote.
“My parents never saw this day. My husband never saw this day,” regretted Mildred Motsuenane, a blind, arthritic mother of 10 children. The gray-haired woman was weeping in triumph after balloting in a church in the Soweto ghetto that was ringed and ringed again by a patient throng. Emerging into the sunlight, she could not see how elegantly the lines of voters laced the hillside sprawl of the dirt-road town.
For a long time, my bulletin board at work held a copy of a quote from one of the oldest individuals to vote in the election. Unfortunately, I cannot remember what the quote said or what happened to it; I just remember that it made me misty-eyed. I have tried to include some contextual articles below for those of you who do not remember those incredible days in 1994.
Over 17 million people voted; can you imagine that many people in our country voting? Standing in line for hours and hours, no shelter, no seating? I can’t see that happening here. Here are a few of the quotes from voters that I could find:
“I have waited all of my life for this day. No long queue is going to stop me.” ~ unknown voter
“I am so happy to have lived to see this day. It is the day Mandela is coming to us.” ~ Albert Madiwane, 108, voting for the first time in his life
“We’ve been waiting five hours, but other people have been waiting 40 years.”~ Thomas Lethiba, 24, a Soweto voter
“It’s finished, it’s finished, for the first time in 82 years. At the age of 82 I am free!” ~ Martha Motseli, voting for the first time in her life
“That was one of the things that worried me—to be raised to the position of a semi-god—because then you are no longer a human being. I wanted to be known as Mandela, a man with weaknesses, some of which are fundamental, and a man who is committed.”
In the U.S. we take for granted what other countries are willing to die for: basic human rights, democracy, free speech, clean drinking water, medical care, books . . . As a country, we choose to elevate our athletes and movie stars to positions of fame and fortune. We adore the moneyed, and we forgive their sins so easily (Wall Street, anyone?). We want our politics to be uncluttered and easy.
Nelson Mandela became a hero the hard way. He believed in an idea, and he worked tirelessly for that idea until the day he died. Mandela was the voice and face of freedom for so many. His death is a loss for peoples of all nations and creeds.
Recommended Reading (from me), specifically on Mandela:
‘He is now at peace’: Nelson Mandela dead at 95
Nelson Mandela: Letters to Loved Ones From Prison
The Long Walk of Nelson Mandela
The Life & Times of Nelson Mandela
Context on key events surrounding apartheid and South Africa:
U.S. activists and politicians campaign at South African Embassy for end to apartheid, 1984-1985
Memories of a South African Election Day
South Africa Tastes Freedom
The South African Vote: The Scene; A Joy Born in Pain Dances in the Street
The South African Vote: The Voting; Blacks Seizing Their Moment
21 Icons South Africa (this one includes a stunning portrait of Mandela that I’m certain is under copyright)
And of course, the quotes:
- Why Nelson Mandela Came To Boston In 1990 (wbur.org)
- Nelson Mandela death: Examining the backlash (kcci.com)
- How a UK pop song helped free Nelson Mandela (kcci.com)