Eclectic Rant: Happy Birthday Nelson Mandela

By Ralph Stone
Sunday July 24, 2011 - 12:39:00 PM

A belated happy birthday to Nelson Mandela on his 93rd birthday. He was born on July 18, 1918.  

Mandela served as President of South Africa from 1994 to 1999, and was the first South African president to be elected in a fully representative democratic election. Before his presidency, Mandela was an anti-apartheid activist, and the leader of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the armed wing of the African National Congress (ANC). In 1962 he was arrested and convicted of sabotage and other charges, and sentenced to life in prison. Mandela served 27 years in prison, spending many of these years on Robben Island. Following his release from prison on February 11, 1990, Mandela led his party in the negotiations that led to multi-racial democracy in 1994. Mandela received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993.  

Since his retirement in 1999, one of Mandela's primary commitments has been the fight against AIDS. His son, Makgatho Mandela, died of AIDS on January 6, 2005. AIDS continues to be a major problem in South Africa and indeed, in all of Africa. An estimated 5.6 million people were living with HIV and AIDS in South Africa in 2009, more than in any other country. It is believed that in 2009, an estimated 310,000 South Africans died of AIDS. 

In 2002, my wife Judi and I visited South Africa. While we were in Cape Town, we took a ferry ride to Robben Island, the political prison where Nelson Mandela and other ANC leaders were imprisoned. The island is now a museum and the guides are former prisoners. Our guide served 8 years of a 10 year sentence for carrying explosives. He described the appalling conditions that the inmates endured. Our guide recounted how he had recently met a former prison guard, who had beaten him daily. The former guard was on the island to show his wife and two young children where he used to work. The guide warned him that if he was on his tour, he would single him out as one of the brutal prison guards. The former guard decided not to take his family on the tour. The guard did say he would like to sit down and talk with our guide. The guide said he had mixed emotions about such a meeting. I have always wondered whether the two ever met and, if so, the outcome of the meeting. 

During our visit to Soweto, a Black township just outside Johannesburg, we asked one of our black guides about his feelings toward white South Africans. He told us that Nelson Mandela invited his prison warden to sit at the head table at his inauguration and then hecommented, "Where our leader leads, we must follow no matter how bitter or angry we feel."  

We also visited Guguleto, a township near Cape Town. Our Black guide took us to a Community development project where we dined on African cuisine, including one of Mandela's favorite dishes -- a tasty casserole of beans and corn. Our Black guide took us to his squatter shack in the township. It was a two-room shack where he and his young son lived. The inhabitants of four such shacks shared an outhouse, which was cleaned once a week. We saw first hand how thousands of Blacks lived during apartheid. These townships were scheduled to be demolished and residents moved to new housing. 

Again Happy Birthday Madiba. You are one of the twentieth century's great men.