I first became aware of Nelson Mandela and the struggle against apartheid in the late seventies when I was a student at Boston College. But it was an abstract thing. It was part of a jumbled list of issues we talked about in that post-Hippie era. No Nukes, resist President Jimmy Carter’s military registration for young men, and free South Africa.
The one piece of concrete action we took on campus was protesting the university’s investment in companies that operated in South Africa. To the embarrassment of the school administration, we would hold rallies during the board of trustees meetings. But that was it. Mandela was a distant figure.
Things changed for me after graduation from college in 1982 when I moved to Kingston, Jamaica to teach high school. In the land of Bob Marley, every school girl and boy knew – could feel – the power of this idea: Mandela and freedom. It was literally in the air as the topic of Reggae songs that played in the slums of Jonestown and Trenchtown.
In a politically divided country, the idea of Mandela untied all Jamaicans. And Jamaica was in the vanguard of publically shaming the South African government at every opportunity. If a cricket match was scheduled, the Jamaicans would loudly refuse to play against an all-white team. And that was the talk in my school amongst the school boys. They’d debate the merits of playing or not.
Some years later, back in the U.S., I can tell you where I was the moment that Mandela was released from prison, the way some people remember where they were when John F. Kennedy was shot.
I was newly married and living in an apartment in Oak Park. I was driving to the local Home Depot when the news broke on the radio that Mandela was about to be released. As I sat in my car waiting for him to say his first free words in twenty seven years, I kept hearing a popular song in my head: “Bring back Nelson Mandela. Bring him back home to Soweto. I long to see him walking in the streets of South Africa.”
And now here he was reentering those streets, like a ghost from history back from the dead. And when he spoke, he was calm and firm. The end of apartheid was near.
In American terms, Mandela was South Africa’s Lincoln and Washington rolled into one. In fact, Mandela was more successful than Lincoln in that he fought his civil war peacefully and won. Like Washington, Mandela lead a newly reborn South Africa with grace and steadiness. Mandela is dead. A great light has gone out.