On February 11, 1990, the day Nelson Mandela was released after 27 years in prison, I was driving from downtown Los Angeles to my apartment near Venice, having detoured through a sketchy part of Culver City in an attempt to bypass some traffic calamity or another on the 10.
The radio crackled with almost unbelievable news, and I was so worried I’d lose the signal that I pulled off into a strip mall parking lot and fussed with the dial, confusing the chanting of the crowd in Cape Town—“Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! Freedom! Freedom! Freedom!—with static.
When the clear, mellifluous voice of arguably the greatest advocate of justice and peace alive at the time spoke to the South African people, I wept with many around the world:
“Comrades and fellow South Africans, I greet you all in the name of peace, democracy and freedom for all. I stand here before you not as a prophet, but as a humble servant of you the, people. Your tireless and heroic sacrifices have made it possible for me to be here today. I therefore place the remaining years of my life in your hands.”
And so he did, winning a Nobel Prize in 1993 with the last apartheid-era president, F.W. de Klerk, before serving as the first freely elected president of a democratic South Africa. But his presence to the people of South Africa and to many around the world was much more than as a political figure, even a powerfully transformative one.
In an interview earlier this year, when Mandela was hospitalized for the pneumonia to which he would eventually succumb, Anglican priest and justice advocate Michael Lapsley called Mandela “everybody’s father, everybody’s grandfather.” His personal warmth, humor, and the humility that marked his words upon his release from the notoriously brutal Robben Island prison, where he spent most of his incarceration, shaped Mandela as the most human of humanitarians, the parent of a nation in a real rather than merely symbolic way.
Said Lapsley, who worked with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the 1990s and in 1998 established the Institute for Healing of Memories, Mandela “became the embodiment of all our hopes. … In a deeply divided society where there had always been an ‘us’ and a ‘them,’ he consistently conducted himself as though there was always only an ‘us.’”
Father Lapsley reminded me in the interview that, at each stage of Mandela’s life—through the 1964 trial that resulted in his imprisonment, the dignity he exhibited in prison and his genuine friendship with guards at Robben Island, his release from prison, his presidency, his advocacy for AIDS education and treatment, and on through his later years in his focus on children—“people would think, ‘what will it be like now that he’s done this extraordinary thing? What else could he do? And he would do something more extraordinary. He poured himself out for humanity and for South Africa. He consistently embodied the best of all of us.”
This deeply embodied, ever transforming generosity, said Lapsley, is the heart of Mandela’s legacy. Mandela taught us, said Lapsley, “that we all have a role to play in shaping the world of our dreams. We can live together, we can be a human family, we can live together in peace, with dignity and respect to each other.”
This inspiration to new generation truly does put the life of Nelson Mandela, as it continues to have profound meaning in South Africa and the wider world, in all of our hands.