Mourning Mandela—An Imperfect Tribute

 by Lauren Sparks

Nelson Mandela’s funeral was today.  These words are impossible and, yet, true.  The world mourns its premier symbol of reconciliation, its valiant champion of freedom.  Newspapers hurry to print tributes, celebrities and politicians offer press releases chronicling their sorrow, and when news of his death first broke, the patrons in a small café on Connecticut Avenue gasped, expelling their surprise in a unified, pneumatic rush.  I was in that café, studying for exams, when a frazzled barista announced, “Nelson Mandela just passed away.”  I was overcome with a numb disbelief that still has not quite abandoned me.  How does one begin to mourn the death of hero, the passing of a man who dared us to be better, to try harder?  Whatever we say, words will be inadequate, inferior tools of expression that fail to capture what he meant to so many people.     

One way to show our abiding love for Mandela is to recall his life, a tumultuous narrative filled with such resilience and strength so as to almost seem unbelievable.  Born in a small, rural village in South Africa in 1918, no one could have predicted that Nelson Mandela, or Madiba as he was known,  would become an iconic world leader.  While there are few pictures of Mandela as a child, one could see traces of that long-ago childhood in his warm grin with its ever-so-slight hint of mischief.  He eventually left his rural home of Qunu to attend school, but he always carried this early home with him, even telling his eldest daughter that “if I am not buried there, my bones will shake.”  

Mandela was expelled from college for his involvement in a student protest.  This first act of bravery may seem slight in comparison to his later feats, but he risked his education and future for his beliefs, something not many college students can say.  He went on to form the African National Congress Youth League while still in his twenties.  In the 1950s, Mandela was appointed the National Volunteer-in-Chief of the Defiance Campaign which was designed to protest unjust laws through civil disobedience in violation of the Suppression of Communism Act; Mandela was sentenced to hard labor for nine months as a result of his activities.  Around the same time, he and a partner formed South Africa’s first black law firm.  Throughout the next four decades, Mandela’s life was consumed by activism.  He dedicated so much more than his political career to ending the systematic and ruthless repression of South African Blacks—he gave his whole existence to a nonviolent crusade for freedom.  In 1994, Mandela became South Africa’s first democratically elected president and served one term when he stepped down to continue his social justice endeavors, including the establishment of the Nelson Mandela Foundation. 

A simple retelling of Mandela’s life, however, is an imperfect tribute for a man who, while not himself perfect, was among the closest the last hundred years has seen.  Another way to honor this man is to continue on with his work because there is still so much to be done.  The New York Times reported this morning that homosexuals in South Africa fear what the future holds for them after Mandela’s passing.  Last week, a wealthy White teenager was given a mere probation sentence for killing four people while drunk driving after his lawyers successfully pled that he was a victim of a privileged, wealthy childhood, coined “affluenza,”  while minorities in this country face drastically harsher penalties for significantly lesser crimes.  If you live in D.C., walk outside for a few blocks…your neighbors, the homeless, are hungry and cold.    

There is still work to be done and more than enough to go around.  If one man can accomplish all that Mandela did, how much more can we all do together?  The best tribute we can give a man whose life was defined by an unwavering dedication to social justice and freedom is striving for his ideal “of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities.”  


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