When Great Souls Die: MADRE Gives Tribute to Nelson Mandela
Posted on: Thursday, December 5, 2013
When great souls die,
the air around us becomes
light, rare, sterile.
We breathe, briefly.
Our eyes, briefly,
a hurtful clarity.
- Maya Angelou
A great soul has died. Nelson Mandela – a leader of the anti-apartheid liberation struggle, prisoner of conscience for 27 years, South Africa’s first democratically-elected president, a beacon of hope for justice and equality worldwide – has died. And with his passing, his family, South Africa and the world have suffered an immeasurable loss.
In his years of struggle, he kept his gaze unblinkingly turned to a vision of democracy and freedom. As a young man, he joined the African National Congress (ANC) and helped organize boycotts and strikes to confront apartheid. For speaking out against segregation and oppression, he was arrested and jailed repeatedly.
He fostered ties with revolutionaries and activists worldwide, learning from struggles against racism and imperialism and shining a spotlight on the brutal realities of apartheid. In 1964, the regime sentenced him to life in prison, and he spent decades behind bars. As the anti-apartheid movement blossomed, nationally and globally, it amplified a central rallying cry: “Free Mandela!”
Yet, for decades, many powerful world leaders turned a blind eye, and often embraced the vicious and criminal regime of apartheid. In the 1980s, US President Ronald Reagan advanced a morally bankrupt policy of “constructive engagement” with the apartheid government, meanwhile rejecting the ANC as pro-communist. The US officially labeled the ANC and Mandela as “terrorists,” a label that was not removed until 2008.
Through it all, Mandela’s unshakeable leadership gave courage and strength to countless activists for racial equality. The pressure they generated helped to finally collapse the apartheid government and to bring about Mandela’s release in 1990. His steady guidance shepherded South Africa’s transition to democracy, through those first elections in 1994 and through his presidency.
It is hard to think about a world after Mandela. We struggle to imagine a figure who could replace him, who could inspire so many to see a path forward towards justice and to take those first steps.
We are inspired by what he has left us. His words and his actions are his legacy. Our greatest tribute to him will be in continuing the work he left unfinished—to achieve true racial equality and democracy.
And when great souls die,
after a period peace blooms,
slowly and always
irregularly. Spaces fill
with a kind of
soothing electric vibration.
Our senses, restored, never
to be the same, whisper to us.
They existed. They existed.
We can be. Be and be
better. For they existed.
- Maya Angelou
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