"It is music...and dancing...that makes me at peace with the world...and at peace with myself. But I don't see so much movement out there...I would like us to join!"I was surprised how my dinner tonight and my trip home on the subway was so normal. I live in NYC. This city is aware of the world, aware of struggle, aware of history. Yet no one was talking about it. The restaurant I ate at had CNN on (muted) showing the headline, but eventually they changed back to their normal sports. Barely a ripple through my evening routine, but today a great man passed.
I think I knew about Steven Biko before I knew about Nelson Mandela. It was the story of Biko that introduced me to the struggle against apartheid. Mandela was a more vague figure to me. In college I heard then-bishop Desmond Tutu speak as strongly as he could, without getting himself arrested upon his return to South Africa, to an American audience urging us to stand up for what is right. He told us too often America, a fundamentally good country, backed the wrong horse. He urged us to back the right horse this time. He didn't outright say we should stand up to Apartheid, support divestment, but it was clear that was what he meant. Biko and Tutu were the main forces inspiring my anti-Apartheid activism in college. I changed my purchasing habits. I protested. I lobbied Congress and corporations, urging divestment.
I don't know when I became more aware of Nelson Mandela himself, but certainly by the time he was released he had become a much more familiar figure to me. One of the most poignant moments I have witnessed in my entire life was soon after Mandela walked free. I was part of a vast audience at the Los Angeles Colosseum who came to hear Mandela give one of his first international speeches after his release. I remember little of that evening, but I remember vividly a thin and very tired looking Nelson Mandela walk onto the stage and the entire LA Colosseum full of people stood up and gave him a very, very long standing ovation. He was stunned. From afar it looked like this moment as much as any other was when it sunk in that he was not just free, but he had overcome. There was not a dry eye in the house, I'd warrant.
Nelson Mandela saw much of history...and made some of it. Like most great people he had his flaws but if anything is greater for moving beyond those flaws.
I am thrilled that he not only saw his own freedom and the end of official apartheid in South Africa, but that he got to see America elect its first black President, a moment that must have made him proud...and made him proud of South Africa that got to that milestone before us.
One of my favorite tributes to Mandela was sung by Johnny Clegg, a song called "Asimbonanga" (Meaning: "We Haven't Seen Him" referring to his long imprisonment). In 1999 Clegg got to sing it live, with Nelson Mandela coming out onto stage to join him...the awe in Johnny Clegg's eyes is endearing, and the serenity and happiness in Nelson Mandela's face is inspiring:
Farewell Nelson Mandela.
If I may recommend one donation to make in honor of Nelson Mandela, may I recommend the South African Education and Environment Project.