Like our black and brown peers in the city, for suburban and rural white kids growing up in the '80s after the Reagan Revolution, Nelson Mandela and the struggle against apartheid were catalysts that led many of us to question what was happening at home and abroad. We built shanties on our campus quads and organized to demand corporate divestment from the apartheid regime. We joined pickets in front of the South African embassy and consulate. We watched and donated in response to the massive Free Mandela Concert; if Peter Gabriel, Annie Lenox, Simple Minds and Sting were singing his praises, it had to be cool.
At the heart of it all was the compelling story of Madiba, as he was popularly called, and other freedom fighters who courageously founded the ANC in a peaceful challenge to a totalitarian regime. Ultimately, they had to be more radical in the face of an increasingly racist state that used violence, torture and fear to control millions of black South Africans and Namibians who simply wanted their history and their country back after two centuries of colonial rule and their forced settlement into the segregated townships and Bantustans of post-World War II South Africa.
I remember first reading about Nelson Mandela's imprisonment on the Robben Island in High School, at a time when I was still drinking the Reagan-era Kool-Aid that said we could all be rich if we cut taxes, kicked people off welfare and let corporations do whatever they wanted. Like the Autobiography of Malcolm X, it was a story white America just could not ignore. He refused to renounce armed struggle as a response to apartheid, which scared some and inspired others. But his message was also coupled with a call for reconciliation and a "rainbow nation" that ultimately inspired millions of young people like me. It led me to a job at Africare working my tail off on an internship program to provide professional training to a range of young Black South African grad students and activists then living in the U.S.
Madiba's message also brought me to jobs with the UN and grassroots peoples' organizations in Namibia, which had also been subject to apartheid. Friends and I drove into South Africa for a vacation on the day that Mandela was elected President of the new South African government. For weeks pundits had been predicting violence, as they had so many times before when it came to tossing out the apartheid regime. But Madiba's message of peace and reconciliation ultimately prevailed and he was the first democratically elected President of South Africa -- in addition to being the first black president of the nation.
Sadly, Mandela's words did not always deliver concrete action by the new South African government. While many black and brown South Africans have moved up the social economic ladder, those suffering AIDS and those still consigned to unserviced shantytowns, to name two constituencies, are fed up and rightly questioning the corruption of elements of the ANC dominated government. Ultimately though, it is Madiba's message of principled struggle that continues to guide the new South Africa -- just as it continues to inspire our struggle in an economically segregated New York City. We will deeply miss you Madiba, and thank you for inspiring millions of us -- Africans, African Americans, white Americans and many others -- to activism and action.