Thursday, 5 December 2013

Nelson Mandela - Thoughts from an Idealistic Student

Image Credit; Ben Sutherland
As a youngster growing up in the eighties I knew all about Nelson Mandela and the struggle against the brutal Apartheid regime from news reports. I was helped along in my growing knowledge by the music of my era, songs often commenting on events around the world such as Free Nelson Mandela by Special AKA and Gimme Hope Jo'anna by one of my favourite artists Eddie Grant. I soon came to learn about this great man who in attempting to lead his people to freedom (sometimes through questionable means) was arrested and convicted of various crimes and sentenced to four life sentences. Like any aspiring idealist I greatly admired Nelson Mandela, who passed away aged 95, an inspiration to his people and others fighting for their freedom around the world.

So what did Nelson Mandela mean to a spotty teenager whose interests mainly featured breakdancing, martial arts, and girls along with the typical (yet infrequent) teenage rebellion against the parents? I was raised to believe in equality for all and that any form of bigotry based on skin colour, nationality and religion was unacceptable. Hearing all about the treatment of black South Africans at the hands of the white led Apartheid regime at the time my conclusions about them were obvious. Mandela fascinated me as at the point I was becoming politically aware he had already served over 20 years in prison under very harsh circumstances. Having read and heard his story and how he remained defiant in the face of such brutality not to mention the call to action he inspired, I realised this was a man who was not only a voice but also an icon for the much needed change in his country.

As the fight against Apartheid evolved to include the support of politicians and celebrities the world over, I grew from wide eyed school boy teen to a college student full of ambition and idealism. I believed in the right to protest and the right to speak out and as such attended many demonstrations. The anti-Apartheid movement grew into an international movement of sanctions, and boycotts of South African produce (not one Cape apple passed my lips). Through this movement I witnessed Mandela grow into a symbol of Freedom for South Africa and like so many was caught up in the whirlwind of his pending release. I watched, like millions of others, as he walked out of prison, quite spry for 71 after serving 27 years in prison, with a big smile on my face. I wasn't the only one, as Mandela was smiling, holding hands with his then wife Winnie, and waving to the crowds. It was a momentous occasion as I knew then, with his release, there was sure to follow the downfall of Apartheid. 

A few days after his release I attended a demonstration against student loans in London's Hyde Park. Of the many speakers lending the voice of solidarity was one of the founding members of the ANC and former Mandela cell mate Denis Goldberg. He talked of that moment broadcast all over the world, the moment that had me smiling, where he walked through the neighbouring towns to greet the people who come to witness his release. It seems this move was more symbolic than I realised. Mr Goldberg explained that as they were being escorted from the court rooms to prison the guards had taunted Mandela about how the only way he would leave his dank concrete cell would be feet first. I don't think at the time there was ever a more potent symbol for freedom than a black South African walking out of prison, alive and healthy in defiance of his sneering gaolers 27 years later crowds of black and white South Africans alike cheering his name. 

The rest really is history; Apartheid was dismantled, South Africa held its first true open elections and Mandela became the first black President elected to office. During the decades of struggle for freedom from oppression to see it finally become a reality must have had many South Africans weeping for joy (and perhaps even a few for sorrow) for days maybe even weeks on end. If it were a dream I don't think any of us wanted to awake from it. Mandela was no saint, and he was far from perfect but he had the courage of his convictions and he never wavered in the face of such fierce and brutal opposition. Mandela defied his oppressors and put his country onto what he hoped would be the path to freedom and equality for his people, passing away peacefully surrounded by his loved ones and with the adjulation of much of the world in his corner. RIP. 
For to be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others - Nelson Mandela

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