Honor Nelson Mandela.

Anti-apartheid leader and African National Congress (ANC) member Nelson Mandela raises clenched fist, arriving to address mass rally, a few days after his release from jail, 25 February 1990, in the conservative Afrikaaner town of Bloemfontein, where ANC was formed 75 years ago. (Photo by TREVOR SAMSON / AFP) (Photo by TREVOR SAMSON/AFP via Getty Images)

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In November 2009, the South African government and U.N. General Assembly declared July 18th Nelson Mandela International Day. This celebration recognizes the former president’s remarkable commitment to human rights, conflict resolution, and reconciliation in the face of unimaginable racist oppression. The annual celebration is a global call to action (SAGOV).

Rolihlahla Mandela was born on July 18th, 1918 on the eastern coast of South Africa. Under different circumstances, Rolihlahla Mandela, son of a chief, would have been groomed to steward the land of his people. But under colonial rule, he watched his family, country, and identity be stripped of dignity and self-ownership for the benefit of white supremacist ideals (Long Walk To Freedom). From his first day of school, Mandela was given an English name and taught to regard his African heritage as inferior to British culture and education. Baptized into white supremacy as Nelson, Mandela strode forth bound by a mercilessly oppressive state and answering to someone else’s name (Long Walk To Freedom).

When the white National Party institutionalized the system of segregation known as apartheid in 1948, Black South Africans had already been living under oppression for centuries. Apartheid segregated geographic living spaces, required people of color to carry an identification pass, banned interracial marriages and friendships, allowed the government to declare stringent states of emergency, and increased penalties for protesting against apartheid or supporting the repeal of the law (Nations OnlineSUNY).

Black opposition groups grew in response. As a human rights lawyer and a senior member of the African National Congress (ANC), Mr. Mandela led mass noncompliance movements against the racist laws, including co-founding the armed resistance group known as uMkhonto we Sizwe after the ANC was banned in 1960 (Nobel Prize). Members of resistance groups were tracked down, arrested, tortured, and charged with treason, the punishment for which was hanging or life imprisonment. During one of these raids, Nelson Mandela was captured and put on trial. He was convicted of sabotage and treason and sentenced to life in prison (Nations Online).

During his 27-year incarceration, Mr. Mandela became a symbol for the anti-apartheid movement. As tensions within the country grew increasingly violent and bloody, the white government consistently attempted to use Mr. Mandela to suppress the resistance. He refused to compromise his political position to obtain his freedom (Nobel Prize).

As Black liberation movements defeated colonial oppression across Africa, international support for the anti-apartheid movement took the shape of boycotts, sanctions, and mass protests against the government of South Africa. In the U.S., Martin Luther King had encouraged action against the regime before his murder, and through the 80s, student activists across the country pressured Congress to sanction apartheid South Africa (Michigan U). Against the backdrop of the Cold War, progress was slow. Western countries feared that Black liberation movements with communist ideals would work against American interests. In 1986, President Reagan denounced “calculated terror by elements of the African National Congress… creating the conditions for racial war” and in 1988, the U.S. put the ANC and Nelson Mandela on a terrorist watchlist where they remained until 2008. Congress would only sanction the apartheid state in 1986 after decades of pressure (TIME).

With a declining economy, fierce internal dissent, and international pressure, the apartheid government began to fall. When Mr. Mandela was released from prison in 1990, he was tasked with negotiating equality. The outlook for peace and stability within South Africa was grim as pain and loathing from years of oppression threatened to swallow the nation in violence (NPR). Mr. Mandela’s push for peace and reconciliation allowed South Africa to usher in the first democratic elections in 1994, where he was elected the nation’s first Black president.

Together with Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Mr. Mandela set up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to recompense the human rights violations that took place during the struggle (Truth and Reconciliation Commission). Mr. Mandela understood how white supremacy divides human nature with hate, suspicion, and domination. He chose unity and peace in their place.

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela exemplifies the best of human potential. For this reason, we should all celebrate Nelson Mandela Day. In South Africa, the holiday is celebrated with community service. This uplifts the African spirit of Ubuntu, a philosophical principle that translates to mean, “I am because we are.” Ubuntu recognizes the interconnectedness of humanity and reminds us that we are only as strong as our weakest link. This year, make every day, Nelson Mandela Day as a reminder that the ultimate step toward change is empathy and service in a world sharply divided by difference (United Nations).

Key Takeaways

  • Nelson Mandela International Day is a global call to action stressing the importance of individual empathy, community, and service to make wide-scale change.

  • Nelson Mandela gave his life to the service of humanity—as a human rights lawyer, political prisoner, peacemaker, and the first democratically-elected president of a free South Africa.

  • Nelson Mandela Day recognizes the former president’s remarkable commitment to human rights, conflict resolution, and reconciliation.

Image Creator: TREVOR SAMSON, AFP via Getty Images

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