"I was made, by the law, a criminal, not because of what I had done, but because of what I stood for, because of what I thought, because of my conscience." (Statement during trial, 1962)
Sir Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was a world-class leader, the ultimate leader of his time and one that history will revere for years to come.
Mandela was awesome and graceful as he grew from a man of the people into a statesman. It will take a very long time to fully understand his dynamic and impact. His grasp of justice, equality and parity overwhelmed.
He was a man willing to die for his belief in freedom. After being jailed for five years doing hard labor, he said, "If I had my time over I would do the same again. So would any man who dares call himself a man."
Mandela inspired, he demonstrated, he fought, but most of all he led. He fought for his country, for his people, for what was right for his nation, and he changed the world. He ended apartheid in South Africa, and became iconic in doing so.
Nelson Mandela was born of royalty and was a lawyer by academic training, the first in his family to attend school. He moved to Johannesburg, where he joined the ANC to become a founding member of its Youth League. He was militant, sometimes classified as a "terrorist."
In 1962 Mandela was convicted of conspiracy to overthrow the government and sentenced to life imprisonment. He served 27 years before worldwide pressure facilitated his release by the South African government.
His first wife, Winnie Mandela, was his protest hell-raising partner who kept his name, his cause and his politic alive. She traveled the world fundraising, speaking at forums, holding meetings with political and movement types to keep the cause moving and she was very successful at it.
When Mandela was released from prison on February 11, 1990 to a world stage, he walked out of jail hand in hand with his Winnie. Black America set clocks for early morning wake up and were spellbound as we watched the release before going to work or school that morning.
A country cried and South Africans jumped for joy as the warrior gave his first speech as a free man to his people. He announced unapologetically a new South Africa that would be what he called "race free."
Mandela opened negotiations with President F. W. deKlerk to abolish apartheid and established multi-racial elections in 1994. He ran for President of South Africa and people stood in line for hours to vote. Finally allowed to vote for the first time in his life, Mandela cast his very first vote for himself.
He was victorious and became a masterful politician. American government and press did not always treat Mandela warmly or nicely. The mainstream press's big question was what did Mandela look like, since he had not been seen for nearly three decades. Time and Newsweek magazines had imaginary cover images.
But he came out of jail, after 27 years, like he had been on vacation. He was an older man, but very much contemporary and obviously well bred and read.
Mandela suppressed his anger and many of the pundits say he wasn't angry, but that's rubbish. How can you be sentenced to 27 years of hard labor, abusive treatment, locked up, denied your family and not be angry?
Behind close doors he was discontent, but never in public. He grew better, not bitter. He was patient. He realized he could not complete his purpose of peace and create a race free society as an angry man. So negatives were suppressed and never publicly displayed. That was his media savvy.
Coming to America
Mandela toured three American cities in 1993. New York gave him the type of parade usually reserved for sports champions, hosted by Mayor David Dinkins. That tour included Chicago. The Reverend Jesse Jackson was his coordinating host and I was on the team to welcome him at the Rainbow PUSH Coalition during his three-day visit.
People were in droves on 50th and Drexel at PUSH headquarters dressed in African garb as Rev. Jackson and the PUSH family welcomed him victoriously. Mandela spoke and the crowd was silent, listening to every deliberate word, and then we roared.
I had the opportunity to coordinate a private party at the lovely home of Attorney Bob Bennett in Kenwood. It was yet another fundraiser for a few to meet and talk to Mandela up close and personal. It was a select group. I had my 15 minutes with him and he was absolutely regal.
Mandela loved people. There were never too many. As you spoke to him or he to you, he was captivating. It was as though you were speaking to a king with a common touch. He was reserved yet friendly.
I presented him with my book, A Lasting Impression about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and I gave him copies of N'DIGO. Right there on the spot, he began to go through the book and read N'DIGO. After a short review, he asked me if I could produce N'DIGO in South Africa. He said we could use this in our country.
I was stunned and my mind began racing. He gave me a contact name for follow up. I visited with the Chicago Tribune powers to discuss the possibility and explore the opportunity. I was advised not to do it because the press in South Africa was very different from here in the United States at the time and the concept of "freedom of the press" was not the case there. I did not pursue it, but I was struck and stuck however on Mandela's idea.
At the gathering he asked me another question: Why did Black people dress up in African garb as they visited him? He said, "Do they not note that I am in a navy blue suit, ready for business meetings?" I laughed. He said, "Before I travel to Europe or America, I call up Mr. Valentino and order six navy blue suits."
He said American Blacks don't always understand Africa. He told me one of the qualities of South Africa only slightly known was its good wine, but that the negative image of the country tainted its wine image, unlike the Parisians. He said that one day, Johannesburg, South Africa would be the romantic city. Meanwhile, he said, "I recommend to you South Africa wine."
Mandela was eloquent. His command of the language was beautiful, poetry in motion. He clearly was a word master and thought about his address. He understood the sound byte. He was a Black man who embraced his heritage and shared it.
He spoke on why inequalities were wrong. He took the negatives of his country and skillfully turned them around. He overcame advertises. His legacy is rich. He received the highest honors in the world, including the Nobel Peace Prize. He was friends with the high and mighty and never lost sight of the common man that he fought for.
He loved children and was always encouraging education. His manner was quite serious, yet he appreciated wit and a good joke. He smiled and laughed a lot. He was patient to take a picture with just you and him.
He loved America and encouraged Black Americans to visit and even come live in South Africa. He also loved justice, and he loved his people. And yet, he admitted his wrong and learned from his mistakes.
He wrote wonderful books and there are many biographies that discuss the details of his life. My favorite book is Conversation with Myself, which consists of notes and letters he wrote in jail. Mandela was an incredible interview. He interviewed with Nightline's Ted Koppel on February 11, 1990 in a brilliant moment of TV.
Nelson Mandela taught us many lessons. His leadership will be studied for decades to come and in the coming days, the leaders of the world will bow to him as he is laid to rest. His life serves as an example for kings and presidents and popes in power now and for those to come.
Nelson Mandela lived a hell of a 95 years... Viva Mandela!
"It is never my custom to use words lightly. If 27 years in prison have done anything to us, it was to use the silence of solitude to make us understand how precious words are and how real speech is in its impact on the way people live and die."