As executive director and CEO of the NAACP at that time, I traveled with Vice President Al Gore and First Lady Hillary Clinton along with a delegation of elected officials together with national civic and labor leaders on Air Force One to South Africa. I was honored to sit beside Mrs. Coretta Scott King and Rev. Bernice King at Mandela’s inauguration. I knew then as I know now that Nelson Mandela and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. were more than kindred spirits. Mandela and King were both relentless visionaries and fearless freedom fighters.
Sitting directly in front of me was President Fidel Castro of Cuba. It was significant for him to be in attendance because of the pivotal and game-changing role that Cuba had played in defeating the spread of apartheid in southern Africa in the 1980s, in particular in the Republic of Angola. Another crucial attribute of Madiba was his unflinching international solidarity with other freedom fighters and revolutionaries who were successful in confronting human oppression, colonialism, imperialism and poverty.
There we all were together amidst tens of thousands of dignitaries, leaders and the masses of people of Africa to observe the irreversible transformation of South Africa. After taking the oath of office, President Mandela spoke eloquently and forcefully. At the conclusion of his address, Mandela emphasized: “Never, never, and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another…. The sun shall never set on so glorious a human achievement. Let freedom reign.” From that moment until today, it has been the bountiful and fertile seeds of Madiba’s visionary leadership that have helped to guide and shape the progress of South Africa.
Mandela believed in the importance of reconciliation and forgiveness in the context of assuring equal justice and freedom for all, yet he was not at all some sort of soft or milk-toast leader. Madiba was strong and maintained a firm disciplined humility even after doing 27 years as a political prisoner of the evil of apartheid. It is noteworthy to caution those who now want to attempt to reduce the multiple aspects of the genius of Mandela’s character and leadership to only the comforting singularity of being designated solely as a “forgiver” or “reconciler.” Yes it is without question that Mandela’s courage and leadership to avoid a revengeful transition bloodbath in South Africa was the critical testimony to his towering strength and commitment to liberate all the people of South Africa toward equality, peace, economic justice and empowerment. My point here, however, is to simply remind everyone that freedom is not free and not without sacrifice and struggle. Mandela and the ANC willingly paid a very heavy price to enable the progress that is celebrated today.
Madiba’s leadership personified the collective dignity, integrity, wisdom, ideology, self-determination, tenacity and stamina of the African National Congress. Mandela first joined the ANC in 1942. For more than 70 years, Mandela and the ANC were inseparable in the struggle to free and build a better South Africa for all and to be in solidarity with freedom-loving people everywhere. From President Nelson Mandela to President Thabo Mbeki to President Jacob Zuma today, the ANC continues to provide the necessary leadership to move South Africa forward. In the wake of the passing of Madiba, the following was the official statement of the ANC: “Our nation has lost a colossus, an epitome of humility, equality, justice, peace and the hope of millions, here and abroad. His life gives us the courage to push forward for development and progress towards ending hunger and poverty. We have you, Madiba (Mandela), as our nearest and brightest star to guide us on our way. We will not get lost.”
Long live the spirit of Nelson Mandela. May Madiba rest in eternal peace. Long live the spirit of the ANC. Long live the spirit of the freedom movement throughout the world.
(Benjamin F. Chavis Jr. is president of Education Online Services Corporation and the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network and can be reached at: http://drbenjaminfchavisjr.wix.com/drbfc)