On yesterday, December 5, 2013, Rolihlahla (Madiba) [Nelson] Mandela (b, 1918) died in his native South Africa. I remember first learning, in any critical way, about Apartheid in South Africa, the African National Congress (ANC), and about Nelson and Winnie Mandela in the mid-80s in a course about Apartheid at OSU as a black studies master's student. In 1963, Mandela was brought to trial together with his fellow black activists for about the third time. This time, he and 10 other ANC leaders were sentenced to life imprisonment for political offenses, including sabotage. Nelson Mandela was incarcerated on Robben Island for 18 of his 27 years in prison. During this time, he contracted tuberculosis and, as a black political prisoner, received the lowest level of treatment from prison workers. However, while incarcerated, Mandela was able to earn a Bachelor of Law degree through a University of London correspondence program.
In 1982, Mandela and other ANC leaders were moved to Pollsmoor Prison. In 1985, South African President P. W. Botha offered Mandela's release in exchange for renouncing armed struggle; the prisoner rejected the offer. With increasing local and international pressure for his release, the government participated in several talks with Mandela over the ensuing years, but no deal was made. It wasn't until Botha suffered a stroke and was replaced by Frederik Willem de Klerk that Mandela's release was finally announced—on February 11, 1990. And in 1994 Mandela became the first black President of South Africa!
By 1986 I had returned to Washington DC to work in law firms as a legal secretary in anti-trust litigation and corporate real estate. When Mandela visited the US for the first time I was working at a law firm in downtown DC. I heard some commotion outside and discovered that Mandela was across the street from our offices visiting a museum. I ran outside to a crowd that had already gathered and the police had roped off a path for Mandela. Somehow I made my way to the front of the crowd just as Mandela was coming out of the museum, and he shook my hand. I wanted to never wash my hand. I had locked hands, if but for a second or less, with a man who epitomized courage, dignity, integrity, justice, community, peace, love.. under some of the most trying circumstances. I was so proud and honored to have shaken his hand.
I shall not forget Apartheid, the struggle, the solidarity with the struggle that many of us in the diaspora demonstrated, his fallen comrades (known and unknown), and Mandela's long walk to freedom!