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In accepting his fate, Nelson Mandela walked into greatness



Obama, first lady to attend Nelson Mandela memorials in South Africa
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Updated: January 7, 2014 6:06AM

I don’t think I’ll ever fully understand how Nelson Mandela endured his cruel fate.

On a visit to South Africa in 2000, I stood inside the small jail cell on Robben Island that was Mandela’s home for 26 years. From a distance, I gazed at the mountain of lime that he and his fellow political prisoners chipped away a teaspoon at a time.

I even went to the home that Mandela once shared with his then-wife, Winnie Mandela, and saw the room where they slept that was riddled with bullets the night his enemies came for him.

In Mandela’s beloved Soweto, I walked the streets where a protest by schoolchildren was put down with violent force.

Any one of those things would be enough to turn a human heart to stone.

That is why so many were fascinated by Mandela’s ability to forgive and reconcile with his enemies. His capacity to do so transcended the human condition.

Mandela died Thursday, South African President Jacob Zuma announced. Mandela was 95.

In the speech Mandela delivered at the end of his trial in Pretoria’s Supreme Court in 1964, he was prepared to give his all.

“If I must die, let me declare for all to know that I will meet my fate like a man,” he said.

But rather than a death sentence, Mandela was sentenced to a lifetime of adversity and deprivation.

“For a man in his mid-forties, the cold, the damp, a mat on a concrete floor, a poor diet and manual labor were daunting prospects,” wrote Mike Nicol, one of the authors of the narrative biography that appears in “Mandela: The Authorized Portrait.”

It was a devastating verdict. Yet, Mandela was able to see the unjust imprisonment as a ransom for the freedom of his countrymen.

By the time his captors released him in 1990, he was a frail gray-haired man in his early 70s, but his eyes and his smile still had the twinkle of a child’s.

His allies and his foes came to accept that they were witnessing a miracle of biblical proportions.

Through suffering, Mandela gained the strength and wisdom needed to help his country heal historical wounds.

“The fact that he is so flesh-and-blood real makes his greatness and his sacrifice and his wisdom and his courage in the face of all that has happened to him even more remarkable,” President Bill Clinton said at a reception for Mandela at the White House in 1998.

Although South Africa was a world away from the public housing projects where I grew up, the country’s plight weighed on my heart.

I was about 12 when I stumbled upon a photograph in a magazine — I think it was Life — of black boys running through the streets of South Africa. The accompanying article explained that the boys were protesting pass laws — laws that limited the movement of nonwhites.

Later, the reports about Mandela’s imprisonment and South Africa’s long campaign to end apartheid convinced me that the black man’s struggle to be treated with equality and dignity didn’t end or begin with Selma, Ala., or Little Rock, Ark.

And as with the civil rights movement in this country, the pursuit of justice requires great sacrifice.

Similar to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s strategy of nonviolence, Mandela’s commitment to reconciliation broke the chains of legal apartheid.

When I laid eyes on Mandela in 1993 during his visit to Chicago to thank supporters here, I expected to see a lion.

What I saw was a man who had overcome the ravages of time.

At an age when the average person is struggling to get through the activities in a normal day, Mandela was accepting invitations that were pouring in from all over the world.

Over the next 20 years, everything Mandela sacrificed was restored.

Although his marriage to Winnie — his love in the struggle — ended after he left prison, he found a new love in Graca Machel, whom he married on his 80th birthday.

He emerged from prison to become the nation’s first black president and was able to witness his children and his grandchildren enjoying the freedom that he sacrificed his youth to obtain.

Mandela won the highest honors the world offers, including the Nobel Peace Prize. Though an ex-offender, Mandela has been seated with leaders in palaces and in presidential suites, as well as at the tables of common men and women.

In accepting his fate, Mandela walked into greatness.

I will always remember him as the living symbol of God’s love and grace.


Twitter: @MaryMitchellCST

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