Few would not recognize the glowing smile and humble gaze of Nelson Mandela, the South African anti-apartheid icon who moved his country to democracy. He also became South Africa’s first black president after serving 27 years in prison. After he died this Thursday in his home of Houghton Johannesburg, a world is in mourning.
President Barack Obama who says his own political career was spawned into action initially by an anti-apartheid protest inspired by Mandela said last night in a statement from the White House that Mandela, “achieved more than could be expected of any man.”
“I cannot imagine my own life without Mandela’s example,” said President Obama. Obama had called South African President Jacob Zuma on Thursday to express his condolences.
On Thursday Congressman John Garamendi (D-Fairfield, CA), who served in the Peace Corps in Ethiopia with his wife released a statement on Mandela’s passing. “My wife Patti and I, along with then-Vice President Al Gore, had the honor of spending an evening with Mandela for a discussion centered around the role of women in modern South Africa. I knew then I was in the presence of a giant of our times and a hero to the world. If everyone strived to live a life as well-lived as Mandela’s, the world would be at peace.”
Throughout his life, Mandela had fought for justice in South Africa including as a young law scholar for the African National Congress (ANC). As an ANC leader Mandela fought the Apartheid movement in which racial segregation was enforced by the government.
Though Mandela advocated for peaceful resistance, when he launched a militaristic movement called the Spear of the Nation he was arrested and charged with treason.
“Fifty years of non-violence had brought the African people nothing but more and more repressive legislation and fewer and few rights,” said Mandela at the time he was charged.
Mandela was sentenced to life in prison and was sent to Robben Island. As Prisoner 466/64 he lived in a six-foot wide cell, performed hard labor in a quarry and earned a law degree. After turning down a release in 1985 because he refused to renounce armed resistance to apartheid, a white-haired Mandela walked out of prison in 1990 after a ban on the ANC was repealed.
At a rally in Cape Town, Mandela told an excited crowd of 50,000 people that he was still willing to fight for justice. “Our struggle has reached a decisive moment,” he said. “We have waited too long for our freedom. We can no longer wait.”
In 1993, after working with then South African president Frederik Willem de Klerk to hold South Africa’s first multiracial elections both Mandela and de Klerk were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. In 1994, Mandela was elected the Nation’s first Black President.
Mandela shared his vision for the democratic future of his country with within Foreign Affairs in 1993. “Apartheid corroded the very essence of life in South Africa,” he wrote. “This is why the country’s emerging political leaders are challenged to build a nation in which all people—irrespective of race, color, creed, religion, or sex—can assert fully their human worth; after apartheid, our people deserve nothing less than the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
After serving one five-year term as president, he then shifted focus on philanthropic efforts and spoke openly about the AIDS epidemic in his country. He also traveled the world and met with numerous leaders to share a message of hope. On one of his trips in 2000, Mandela attended a news conference in Minneapolis where he shook hands with American Indian Movement founder Clyde Bellecourt according to the Star Tribune. Bellecourt called upon Mandela to ask President Bill Clinton for a presidential pardon for Leonard Peltier.
Upon hearing the news of Mandela’s passing, Peltier released a statement of his own. “It saddens me to hear that a great man like Nelson Mandela has departed from this lifetime. He was a man who was truly inspirational and showed us the possibilities of how a continued struggle by indigenous people could manifest itself in levels of freedom that have been marred by centuries of oppression,” Peltier said. “Our Native people suffered the same types of oppression many times.”