Nelson Mandela — a soul of rare vintage
Every now and then a soul of rare vintage comes our way. That soul, by circumstances, sacrifice and suffering, finds its way into the soul of our global culture, the family of man, and calls our better angels to fly. Such a soul is Nelson Mandela.
Nelson Mandela was truly a transformative force in the history of South Africa and the world. My heart weighs heavy today, but his life was full and the imprint he left on our world is everlasting.
Addressing the Democratic National Convention in 1988, I said: “Suffering breeds character. Character breeds faith. In the end, faith will not disappoint.” We see this clearly in the life of Mandela. Imprisoned in Robben Island for 25 years and eight months, Mandela never lost faith the South African people would win freedom. Suffering breeds character.
Mandela was a transformational figure; to say he was a “historical figure,” would not give him his full due. Some people move through history as being the “first this or that” — just another figure in a lineage of persons. To be a transformer is to plan, to have the vision to chart the course, the skills to execute it. To be transformational is to have the courage of one’s convictions, to sacrifice, to risk life and limb, to lay it all on the line.
I recall marching against Apartheid with Oliver Tambo and the enormous rally at Trafalgar Square in November 1985. I later met Margaret Thatcher to decry Britain’s economic, political and military support of the apartheid regime. Let us not forget Britain, the U.S. and all of the western powers labeled Mandela a terrorist and steadfastly propped up the Apartheid regime — they were on the wrong side of history. I appealed to her to support the release of Mandela and departed for South Africa.
My heart burst with excitement on the day of Mandela’s release from Victor-Verster Prison on Feb. 11, 1990. When word got out about his impending release, maids started doing the toyi-toyi in the hallways, beating pots and pans, weeping and demonstrating. “In the end, faith will not disappoint.”
I met Mandela and his then wife, Winnie, at City Hall and when we spoke later at our hotel, he thanked me and recalled hearing about my 1988 convention speech; even from his jail cell, Mandela was keenly aware of the outside world, and the ebbs and flows of the world. Three years later, as part of the official U.S. delegation, I was honored to celebrate Mandela’s inauguration as president of the new, free South Africa.
We forged an everlasting relationship. We’ve welcomed him to our home and headquarters in Chicago. We’ve met numerous times in South Africa — the last time in 2010 where we spoke about boxing, sports and politics, and traded baseball caps.
Mandela was a giant of immense and unwavering intellect, courage and moral authority. He chose reconciliation over retaliation. He changed the course of history.
Now, both South Africa and the U.S. have unfinished business to complete.
Mandela is not gone, he remains with us always. He’ll always be a chin bar on which to pull up. Mandela has indeed forged South Africa as a new “beauty from ashes.” He has left this earth, but he soars high among the heavens, and his eloquent call for freedom and equality is still heard among the winds and the rains and in the hearts of the people the world over.
Shakespeare may have said it best: “And when he shall die — take him and cut him into little stars — and he make the face of heaven so fine that all the world will fall in love with night — and pay no worship to the garish sun.”