Skip to content

The character of a champion: Nelson Mandela at 93


On July 18, Mr. Nelson Mandela-Madiba arrived at 93 years young. Such would not have been predicted, when he was sentenced to life imprisonment in South Africa in June 1964.

As one of the 13 major national holidays, and the only one dedicated to a Black South African, the Republic of South Africa celebrated the continuing life and legacy of this great man all this week.

It was he who came out of Robben Island and Victor Verster Prisons in February 1990, after 27 years of incarceration with the wisdom, fortitude and non-bitterness necessary to become the chief reconciler and conscience of a new South Africa.

Confounding virtually everyone, he demonstrated a strength of character and courage unheard of in political leadership to that time. He had to overcome and transcend the negativity of long years of entitled White privilege from the Afrikaners and the British, the continuing intra-ethnic rivalries (remember Gatsha Buthelezi and the Zulu antagonists), and the strong need for revenge and retribution among indigenous South Africans for the abuses of Apartheid and institutional racism in the country.

He was often the only one in the room who knew where he was leading the country. As Martin Luther King had to do in the United States of America, he marched to a recognizable cultural rhythm with a distinctly different beat. In the end, again as with Dr. King, character and focused vision prevailed.

Now, he lives as the heart and soul of where South Africa is going, not just where it’s been. Clearly, he did not negotiate the perfect solution to South Africa’s very deep troubles, but he certainly led in crafting a pragmatic, practical approach forward that would allow time, increasing sophistication and skill, as well as greater opportunities for education and advancement to kick in and drive South Africa to ground higher than even most citizens expected.

Institutional racism and entrenched White privilege are yet alive in South Africa 15-plus years after the new one man-one vote national constitution was adopted. Whites still own more than 70 percent of the land, more than 85 percent of the resources, still dominate in educational leadership, and too many Black South Africans remain poor, ill-housed and depressed. But apartheid, which was merely formalized in 1948 but which had been government policy and practice since the end of the first Anglo-Boer War in 1880, had not been erected in a day, a fortnight or two decades. Its eradication will take time.

Somebody had to stand up and consistently advocate patience, a subduing of passions for pay back, and clear thought in order for South Africa to save itself. As the saying goes–‘you cannot overcome if you are no longer here.’

With the help of many, Nelson Mandela saved South Africa.

In so doing, he earned worldwide acclaim and recognition. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993, and has collected more than 250 other prestigious awards since. He has streets, boulevards and avenues named after him. There are Nelson Mandela universities, villages, libraries and public schools. There are memorial lectures and international conferences in his honor, and naval ships and satellites named after him, as well as books, plays, stamps and other celebrations of his achievements.

At 93 years young, Mandela, South Africa’s first democratically elected president, 1994-1999, is a bona fide hero. He could easily rest on his laurels, give occasional interviews in his trademark hand-painted Madiba shirts, and counsel the young.

Instead, he continues his activist tradition, regularly condemning international and national actions that he deems to be dishonest, immoral or just wrong-headed.

Mandela remains unafraid of taking the high road of integrity and sincerity, even when that means condemning his own African National Congress party, or some of his former Umkhonto we Sizwe (ANC armed wing, Spear of the Nation) colleagues like former South African president, Thabo Mbeki.

Mr. Mandela, happy birthday to ya! You remain a profile in courage and character we can all emulate and of which we can be proud. We salute you.

Professor David L. Horne is founder and executive director of PAPPEI, the Pan African Public Policy and Ethical Institute, which is a new 501(c)(3) pending community-based organization.

DISCLAIMER: The beliefs and viewpoints expressed in opinion pieces, letters to the editor, by columnists and/or contributing writers are not necessarily those of OurWeekly.