• Sunday, December 15th, 2013

Close Encounters with Nelson Mandela

South African President Nelson Mandela at Howard University in 1994. Photo credit: Howard University

As I sit watching Nelson Mandela’s funeral this morning on television, I thought about how this titan who championed for equality, humanity, and harmony influenced so many people across the globe. Drawing world leaders who said goodbye to South Africa’s father during the week-long celebration of Mr. Mandela’s life, they laid aside differences to salute a courageous man who endured more than most of us would willingly suffer.

But, as I watch his funeral, I think back to when I was a child and hearing about Nelson Mandela for the first time. He was still imprisoned then, and apartheid and its effects on South Africa’s people and economy seemed like a mystical concept to my naïve self. I could not imagine experiencing such oppression and the dismal outlook that many residents must have felt at the time.

The increasing spotlight on apartheid, and its wide-reaching effects in South Africa, influenced music celebrating Mr. Mandela’s courageous stand and denouncement of the separatist institution, including the song Free Nelson Mandela, released in 1984, by Jerry Dammers and The Special A.K.A. I remember hearing the song and seeing the video, wondering how one man could spark such an outpour of support and love from his country and people from around the globe.

VIDEO: Jerry Dammers, Special A.K.A., featuring Amy Winehouse, sing to Mandela on his birthday in 2008

Years later, I experienced my own close encounter with Nelson Mandela, a Herculean symbol of leadership to me, whom I laid eyes on at my undergraduate alma mater, Howard University, in Washington, DC. I still recall the buzz that permeated the campus when Nelson Mandela received an Honorary Doctorate degree during the University’s Convocation in October 1994, the same year he became president of South Africa, and just four years after serving almost three decades in prison.

Sometimes, especially as carefree youth, we don’t know when we are facing close encounters with history; but, on that extraordinary day on campus, many of us knew we had encountered greatness – if only briefly – in a man whose legacy would live on in us all. And, it will.

Rest in peace, Madiba.


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