When Nelson Mandela died last week, I was struck by the somewhat impersonal nature of the “continuous live” media coverage. In the United States, I heard interviews with reactions from world leaders, I saw billboards with quotes from Oprah Winfrey and Maya Angelou about what Mandela meant to them. We now, apparently, memorialize our greatest heroes in memes, soundbites on photos which we share and share again. But what I really wanted to know was this:
“What are the people of South Africa feeling right now? How are they mourning the loss of the father of their nation?”
As it turns out, my brother Jeremy is in Cape Town, South Africa. He started sending back photos of the makeshift memorials that were springing up around the city. Touching tributes, both large and small, that showed the genuine love and respect felt for this man. Jeremy is a professor of African history, so I asked him to share his thoughts about Nelson Mandela along with his photos.
The Meaning of Mandela
by Jeremy Prestholdt
I arrived in South Africa a few hours after Nelson Mandela’s passing. The nation had only just begun mourning, but the way in which the former president had touched the lives of all South Africans was plain. From Soweto to Sandton, Cape Town, and Qunu, the outpouring of grief and appreciation was unlike anything I’d seen. While I knew that Mandela was revered, the deep respect for him that I’ve witnessed over the past days suggests that he was far more than a popular leader: he personified the myriad aspirations of South Africans.
As a professor of African history I often tell Mandela’s story. For decades Mandela was vilified as a terrorist. After he traveled to Algeria for military training, many in South Africa called for his execution. Rather than hanging Mandela, the Apartheid government tried to make him irrelevant by condemning him to a life of hard labor. During his nearly three decades in prison he became an icon in the struggle against white minority rule in Africa.
Mandela’s release from prison in 1990 was a watershed in the fight against Apartheid. Yet, it was his adroitness in navigating the path to national freedom that cemented his place in the hearts of all South Africans. Unlike most political leaders, Mandela had an extraordinary ability to balance justice with reconciliation. By drawing on this skill he accomplished what many deemed impossible: he steered a deeply divided and unequal society towards peace and greater freedom. For this Mandela earned universal appreciation as well as the title Tata (father of the nation), a word now on everyone’s lips in South Africa. It’s this deep appreciation for the father of the nation that is so evident here.
Though I’ve recounted Mandela’s history many times, joining South Africans during this period of mourning and remembrance has made me rethink the conclusion to the story that I will tell in future. The new ending will not be Mandela’s presidency or his death. Rather, it will be a reflection on what Mandela means to us now. South Africans–and mourners around the world–have demonstrated that, perhaps more than any other figure of our time, Mandela represents our collective aspirations for freedom, justice, and equality. In this he is more than a South African icon. He is a global symbol of human possibility.
All photo credits to Jeremy Prestholdt
Thank you so much, Jeremy, for writing this guest post!