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Nelson Mandela showed how we all can bring change

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“We don’t have to accept the world as it is. We could do our part to seek the world as it should be.” These words attributed to Nelson Mandela can bring images of huge, global changes and simultaneously address the daily possibilities of making life better for those around us. Some version of these words, such as “Be the change you wish to see in the world,” have been attributed to Mahatma Ghandi and quoted by Paul Wellstone, Barack Obama, and many others including myself, in an earlier column. Brian Morton of the New York Times thought that phrase sounded more like a bumper sticker than Ghandi, so he researched and found the following words to be the closest to Ghandi’s actual words that he could verify: “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. We need not wait to see what others do.”

Nelson Mandela certainly did not wait to see what others would do. He was an ordinary person in many ways, but he did extraordinary things, and the many names he was given reflected aspects of his being and his destiny. His birth name, Roliblahla, given by his father, is an isiXhosa name that means “pulling the branch of a tree”, but colloquially means “troublemaker”, and he grew to become a committed troublemaker in the name of equality and justice. On his first day of school, he was given the Christian name Nelson by his teacher, a common practice influenced by British colonials who couldn’t easily pronounce African names. In later life South Africans of all ages called him “Tata,” a term of endearment meaning “father.” He also is referred to as “Khulu,” the abbreviated form of “grandfather,” also meaning “Great One.” After his death he was affectionately referred to as Madiba, his clan name, that reflected respect for his ancestry. The name he was given at 16 when he went through the traditional Xhosa rite of passage into manhood was Dalibhunga, which means “creator or founder of the council” or “convener of the dialogue.” He certainly lived up to that name, working as an activist throughout his life, providing leadership in the African National Conference, (ANC), co-founding the ANC Youth League (ANCYL), organizing, teaching and encouraging others even while in prison.

Mandela enjoyed the physical freedom of a child growing up in a rural environment, but when he became aware of the concept and privilege of “whiteness” and the discrimination against “blackness,” he was very troubled and determined to fight for what was right. From the age of 12, when his father died, he lived with Thembu Regent Jongintaba Dalindyebo, Acting King of the Thembu people, who groomed him for leadership, let him attend council meetings, and sent him to the best schools. He ran away to Johannesburg to escape an arranged marriage, and saw firsthand the ugly urban reality of severe racial laws and restrictions. He earned a bachelor’s degree and a two-year law degree, opening the first black law office in South Africa with Oliver Tambo. By 1952, Mandela’s activism had aggravated the government so much, they put him under a banning order, meaning he could not attend public meetings nor talk to more than one person at a time. He was arrested numerous times and spent 27 years of a life sentence in prison, finally released in 1990 after pressure on the South African government from supporters around the world.

Mandela worked closely with President F.W. de Klerk’s government to draw up a new constitution for South Africa. After both sides made concessions, they reached agreement in 1993, and would share the Nobel Peace Prize that year for their efforts. In 1994, Mandela was elected president, promising to serve only one term. Dennis Parker, Director, ACLU Racial Justice Program, said in 2013, “Combining an undying intolerance of inequality and a steely determination with warmth, a sense of humor, forgiveness and an almost other-worldly grace, Mandela led the negotiations that allowed for a peaceful transition to a government which, for the first time, included all South Africans.” When apartheid ended, it was feared that the oppressed would become the oppressors, seeking revenge against the whites who had ruled so mercilessly. But Mandela said, “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.”

What is not as well known is that Mandela accomplished something no other head of government had ever done. As the first president of post-apartheid South Africa in 1996, through the new constitution, he brought protection from discrimination based on sexual orientation. Chapter 2, Section 9 of the Bill of Rights reads: “Everyone is equal before the law and has the right to equal protection and benefit of the law.” The term “equality” is defined in subsection 3: “The state may not unfairly discriminate directly or indirectly against anyone on one or more grounds, including race, gender, sex, pregnancy, marital status, ethnic or social origin, color, sexual orientation, age, disability, religion, conscience, belief, culture, language, and birth.” The new Constitution led to the end of a ban on gay men and lesbians serving openly in the South African military and paved the way for a 2005 court ruling that legalized same-sex marriage.

When Dennis Parker traveled to South Africa with a team of other civil rights attorneys to share their experiences working to further civil and human rights, they learned that the South African Constitution’s protections of basic civil rights were far more extensive than the U.S. Constitution’s, and that “this broad scope reflected the broad, pioneering vision of fairness and inclusiveness advocated so effectively by Mr. Mandela.”


Throughout this year, there have been celebrations around the world of the 100th anniversary of Madiba’s birth. and I was lucky enough to participate in one in Duluth on Sunday, the conclusion of a series of events organized by Gerri Williams, who had lived in South Africa for three years during her work with the American Foreign Service. It was a small gathering in the AME church, with speakers and prayers, historical and present-day videos, South African drumming and singing, and dancing the Madiba jive with others present. (If you’re not familiar with the Madiba jive, do Google it and enjoy the dancing around the world in his honor.)


We celebrated his life and vision and especially his clear understanding that the only way to make real progress is to work together, to do something every day to help others, and to operate out of love, understanding, and compassion, not hatred and indifference. We could all learn from his strength, faith, and resilience with the attitude that carried him through life. “I never lose. I either win or I learn.”

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