Today’s #HistoryHero requires no introduction. Indeed, his July 18th birthday is a global celebration. Nelson Mandela Day honors a true leader, who fought against history’s worst legacies—racism, poverty, inequality, and hate—for decades. Even from jail.
Mandela spent the prime of his life a political prisoner for his role in dismantling the system of racial segregation in South Africa known as Apartheid. Derived from the Dutch word meaning "apart-hood" and pronounced "apart-hate," it is an apt description for a policy that brutally oppressed an entire people based solely on their color of their skin. During South African Apartheid, more than 3 Million black and brown citizens were forced to move from their homes and relocate to segregated neighborhoods called Townships. Concentrated in squalid encampments, their possessions were taken, dreams shattered, and hopes destroyed.
The system didn’t just keep whites and blacks apart, it exploited a culture of hate that fueled whites' belief that non-whites were sub-human, inferior, and worthy of injustice. That’s racism: the dehumanization of the “other” such that enslavement, inhumane living conditions, forced labor, and separation of parents and children, is somehow—even by so-called Christians—rationalized as okay.
As a youth, Mandela committed to fighting the cruelty of racial injustice. His answer? Universal suffrage: the right for South African citizens of all races to vote. He dedicated his life to making this happen through nonviolent methods, such as boycotts, civil disobedience, public protest, and legal process.
In 1963, after 20 years of struggle, Mandela was arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment on Robben Island. Called Purgatory, inmates there suffered horrid punishments such as guards burying them up to their necks and urinating on them. He spent the next 27 years in a tiny cell without a bed or plumbing. He was forced to perform backbreaking work in a lime quarry. And being black, he received smaller food rations than white inmates.
Yet, when Mandela stepped back into the light in 1990, he refused to choke on bitterness. Instead, he practiced reconciliation. And with it, he changed the world.
Far from forgotten, Madiba, as he is known by black South Africans, had became the figurehead of a global movement. People and governments everywhere rallied for his release. Once freed, the 71-year-old black leader helped to steer his country toward social equality, starting with the abolishment of Apartheid in mid-1991. In 1994, he was elected president in the country's first multi-racial elections, just one year after winning the Nobel Peace Prize.
We remember Nelson Mandela for his humanity and passion for social justice. These gave him moral authority, then as now. He towered over the demagogues who exploited fear to enhance personal wealth and power. He towers over them still. His life and legacy remain a meditation in rising above.