I first learned about the atrocities of Apartheid when I was in sixth grade. Many moons ago. But I remember the awakening as one that cost me many nights of sleep. I struggled with how at a time in history after so many racist episodes like Hitler’s Nazi Germany or American Slavery had been long abolished, Apartheid could exist. And persist.
As a young person, I felt helpless to know how to change the world, but I began by educating myself. Finding all the resources available at the library (life before Google,) I devoured all the books, memoirs, novels, and movies on the topic of South Africa. Two will always stay with me: Sarafina that starred Whoopi Goldberg as a South African teacher and a Barbara Walters’ 20/20 special interviewing white and black Afrikander children. The latter blew me away as these young white kids spoke about their black neighbors as if they weren’t even human. Simply put, Mandela coined the truth when he said, “No one is born hating another person because of the color of their skin… People must learn to hate.”
As a high school peace-junkie of sorts, I marched against Apartheid, wrote letters to the newspapers, and penned the words, “Free South Africa” on my jean cut-offs. And I recall like it was yesterday the time when a fellow student jeered at the words on my shorts, asking, “Free them from what?” and then laughing because he never wanted to know the answer. He just wanted to poke fun and embarrass me.
I didn’t respond. Not verbally anyway.
Mandela and his choice to stay in prison even when he could have complied with the government moved me more than any modern-day act of peaceful rebellion. Because his freedom meant little if his people were still mistreated and imprisoned by a system that denied basic human rights.
One of the highlights of my short life thus far happened shortly after the news of Mandela’s release from prison. With my dad and best friend, we attended Mandela’s speaking event at Tiger Stadium, and I cried the moment he emerged from the curtains and took the podium. Before he spoke a word, I cried like a baby, because he symbolized something far greater by being there than even his words could say.
He was walking freedom. A million prayers answered. And hope alive.
President Obama said it well when he described Nelson Mandela as a man who showed what a life led by hope instead of fear can look like. Mr. Mandela, your life lived for others and your quest to not give up will stay with me forever. Rest in Peace, man of peace.
You are loved. You will be missed.
May the lessons you taught—with your words and your life—live on.