Freedom for all people

Reflections on Nelson Mandela

By Barbara Russell
Reader Contributor

In 2009, the United Nations designated July 18 as Nelson Mandela International Day to shine a light on the legacy of the man born on that date in 1918 and whose life was committed to freedom, human rights and justice for all people across all borders. Rising beyond his resistance to apartheid in South Africa, the words of Mandela have been engraved on statues, taught in classrooms and celebrated worldwide. 

As our Founding Fathers believed, “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The famous excerpt from the Declaration of Independence has been an inspiration worldwide to people yearning and fighting for their own freedoms. 

Mandela was one of those people who understood the meaning of freedom and the loss of it, imprisoned for fighting apartheid in his home country of South Africa. 

Apartheid, meaning “apartness,” is a system of racial segregation and discrimination based on the ideas of racial superiority and fear. In South Africa, as in America during the Jim Crow era, different racial groups were forced to live and develop separately, creating severe disadvantages. Attempts to stop interracial marriage and social integration between racial groups was a suppression of freedom. 

The African National Congress (ANC), formed in South Africa in 1912, introduced the Programme of Action in 1949 as nonviolent resistance to apartheid and included strikes and protests. Similar to the Civil Rights Movement in the U.S., the ANC’s Defiance Program in 1952 called on people to break apartheid laws such as Black people using “white buses” and “white toilets” knowing they’d be arrested. Mandela, an attorney and one of the leaders of the movement, was arrested in 1961 and acquitted. He was arrested again in 1964, along with other ANC leaders, and sentenced to life imprisonment — confined to a cell without a bed or plumbing, and doing hard labor. Yet, his loss of freedom did not break his resolve to work for a better world.

“Thus, shall we live, because we will have created a society which recognizes that all people are born equal, with each entitled in equal measure to life, liberty, prosperity, human rights and good governance,” Mandela said in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in 1993. 

He also said: “For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”

Mandela was released after 27 years in prison in 1990. In 1993, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his humanitarian work and a year later became South Africa’s first Black president. 

Mandela also saw poverty as a weapon of enslavement:

“Millions of people in the world’s poorest countries remain imprisoned, enslaved and in chains. They are trapped in the prison of poverty. It is time to set them free.”

He said: “Overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity. It is an act of justice. It is the protection of a fundamental human right, the right to dignity and a decent life.”

And another quote: “While poverty persists, there is no true freedom.”

Mandela devoted his life to free the oppressed and became a global advocate for peace and social justice until his death in 2013. He established the Nelson Mandela Foundation in 1999, which today continues its work on critical social issues. Its vision is one of a just society, “one which learns from its pasts and listens to all voices.” 

Mandela’s commitment to human rights, freedom and justice are a source of inspiration to choose dignity over humiliation, bring attention to and fight injustices, and forgive rather than hate. 

Mandela’s message that everyone has the ability to make a difference and transform the world is a call to action. 

“As long as poverty, injustice and gross inequality persist in our world, none of us can truly rest,” he said. 

As he said: “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.”

Barbara Russell is the chair of the Boundary County Human Rights Task Force.

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