In 1988, the group Simple Minds performed their song ‘Mandela Day,’ marking 25 years since the man was imprisoned for his uncompromising political battle to end the racial apartheid system of rule in South Africa. “We know what’s going on,” they sang. The televised awareness-boosting Birthday Tribute in London reached an audience of hundreds of millions around the world.
Eighteen months after the concert, with F. W. de Klerk the new president in Pretoria, he walked free. Convicted for his militant role conspiring to overthrow the white minority government, in 1990 he called for a laying down of arms.
Mandela and de Klerk jointly were awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace for their work ending apartheid, after years of western leaders condemning the black man as a ‘terrorist’.
Next, the ‘terrorist’ was elected president, in South Africa’s first multi-racial, democratic vote, and pledged: “[to] build… a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world… All of us… confer glory and hope to newborn liberty.”
He still moved crowds after he withdrew from formal politics in 2004, serving crucial causes – still calling (as he had in his inaugural, and with his former prisoner number on the podium) “for the healing of wounds.”
“Where there is poverty and sickness – including AIDS – where human beings are being oppressed, there is more work to be done. Our work is for freedom for all.”
The United Nations finally caught the grassroots wind in its sails and declared 18 July – his birthday – Nelson Mandela International Day in 2009. The first official celebration of it was in 2010 – to honour his legacy and his values.
In his memoir, “Long Walk to Freedom,” he admitted to past naiveties, being neglectful to family, being misleading and manipulative. He said he was an ordinary man made a leader by extraordinary circumstances. But along the way he left spite behind, placing reconciliation before retribution. For many in the world, after what he and his country had been through, that is heroic.