President George W. Bush once reportedly said that in history we are all “dead.” But every now and then, someone emerges in our collective consciousness who we wish could live with us eternally. And every now and then some of them do in fact stay with us forever, even after their physical presence is no more. Yesterday, December 5, 2014, President Zuma of South Africa announced that the great champion of humanity, Rolihlahla Madiba Mandela, who was later named “Nelson,” had joined our glorious and progenitor ancestors.
Every commentator has since yesterday erroneously referred to Mandela as South Africa’s “first Black” President. In fact, he was the first President of the now multi-racial, multi-lingual, and multi-religious African nation of South Africa, which the freedom fighters called and still call Azania. Every other national leader before his election in 1994 in that geographical expression was the head of an occupying gangster regime whose plundering, pillaging, rampaging and inhumane atrocities are better left undignified with mention as the world mourns Mandela.
My mother was celebrating my birth in 1964 when Rolihlahla was being sent to jail in South Africa. By 1981 I had arrived as a Freshman at the then Trenton State College (now The College of New Jersey) and immediately became part of the Black student community. My first involvement in an activist mode was my organizing and participatory efforts at the college in the struggle against Apartheid in South Africa. Apart from protesting and petitioning for divestment in South Africa by US companies and pension funds that had shares in companies which did business with the racist regime of South Africa, we brought representatives of the Pan-African Congress and the African National Congress who were on observer missions at the United Nations in New York, to speak at our events on campus. And nothing inspired us in the Pan-African Student Society (which I founded), the Black Student Union and Utimme Umana La Voz Oculta Magazine (which I later served as Editor-in-Chief) at the college more than the knowledge that in prison was the physical and spiritual symbol and embodiment of the struggle for humanity in South Africa, Mandela. We needed him released unconditionally and led by Randall Robinson of Trans-Africa, we so demanded and protested.
By 1990 when Mandela was released from prison, we had overcome the lie and deception of “constructive engagement” and in a fashion reminiscent of the cradle spirits of his ancestors, Mandela became the forgiving glue that held the real nation together – a nation that only truly became one in 1994. Now that the glue has rested, one wonders what would become of the collective of peoples who called him “father of the nation.”
My concern, as often is the case when a freedom fighter passes on, is the recurring lessons in our history. Power, especially evil power, concedes nothing – not freedom, not human dignity, not equality or equity – without a demand and a sustained struggle. While Mandela became the symbol, many countless and unknown others paid much higher prices. And while many western nations and companies continued to exploit the resources of South Africa, the Soviet Union and Fidel Castro and our Cuban brethren helped our people reach a fait accompli with the surrendering forces of apartheid and their allies.
Today just about all former allies of the defeated apartheid regime celebrate Mandela. And therein lies another lesson for this and future generations – that in time all of our vilified, isolated, despised, and ostracized genuine freedom fighters become beloved, revered and celebrated icons. The true path to immortality is to live with, fight for and die for the oppressed, the maligned and the exploited, a choice that has always demanded great sacrifice and gumption.
And so Mandela lives in all who remain committed in the struggle for liberty, equality and equity. In a week or so we will bury “Nelson.” But long will live the spirit of Rolihlahla!
Ugorji O. Ugorji, Ed.D.
Executive Director, African Writers Endowment, Inc.