By David Cruz
He lived to be 95, but during his 27 years in captivity, it was assumed that Nelson Mandela would die in prison. Instead, Mandela went on to transform a nation and become an iconic figure to oppressed people around the world.
“I think it is arguably true that Nelson Mandela will be seen as perhaps the most important, positive figure of the last century,” said Rutgers University Historian Clement Price. He said Mandela was among the constellation of heroes in his life. But Mandela did not start out as a universally loved figure. In 1960, his armed wing of the African National Congress was considered a terrorist organization and he, a socialist firebrand bent on black domination.
“Mandela in his early life, after realizing that things weren’t going to work — when he became a lawyer and tried to work within the system, and still they had racism — he was identified a terrorist and imprisoned as a terrorist,” recalled former Assemblyman Bill Payne.
Mandela was arrested in 1963 for threatening to overthrow the apartheid government. Payne, who represented the U.S. on a post-apartheid reconciliation commission, said Mandela’s imprisonment was an inspiration to America’s civil rights movement. It became a cause celébre in the United States and in the 1980s pressure mounted on the South African government as anti-apartheid demonstrations spread — here in New Jersey and across the country — with calls for corporations to divest in South Africa and for the U.S. to impose sanctions.
“When this country passed the sanctions against South Africa, Ronald Reagan vetoed it and members of both parties — Republicans and Democrats — came together and overrode the veto,” recalled Payne.
With political pressure mounting, in 1990 Mandela walked out of prison and into history. His release led to the downfall of the apartheid system and within a few years he was president. Around the world, he was recognized as a symbol of justice, reconciliation and non-violent change, the alleged former terrorist now welcomed at the UN and Congress. He served one term as president, and stepped down voluntarily, unheard of in a continent known for dictators and despots.
“I think that Mandela knew that by the time he left Robben Island, he was destined to be a legend, a living legend and a legend beyond his life,” said Price, “and that figured into his extraordinary decision to run against the grain of history and do one term that would have symbolic and metaphoric meaning.”
Mandela’s death yesterday was not unexpected; he had been ill for some time. But in addition to mourning, there was a renewed appreciation of what he meant to South Africa and to the world. Tributes came from across the state, from Congressman Albio Sires to Senators Cory Booker and Bob Menendez, and included the White House, where South Africa’s first black president was honored by America’s first black president.
“He achieved more than could be expected of any man,” said the president. “Today he has gone home and we have lost one of the most influential, courageous and profoundly good human beings that any of us will share time with on this earth. He no longer belongs to us; he belongs to the ages.”
It’s easy to be cynical today in an era where heroes seem so disposable. But Mandela was the genuine article and amid the celebrations of his life today, there is a sense that it will be a long time before we see his likes again.