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The Day I Met Nelson Mandela

His recent death reminds us that Nelson Mandela was first and foremost a tribal member. He had a tribal name, but was given the name Nelson when he went to school. He held an inherited right to leadership in his tribe and always went home to connect with his relatives, his culture, and to honor his family’s position by participating in ceremonies and councils. (His favorite food was taniga, tripe.)He could have had a life if honor and eminence, but set it aside to work for a greater cause – the cause of all post-colonial Africans. Trained for leadership, he had the self-confidence to reach beyond himself and take responsibility for a higher purpose, using his vision talents, and skills to solve problems for larger groups of people. It wasn’t an easy choice to leave his own people who needed him so much.

Mandela trained as a lawyer while facing the laws of discrimination and oppression that held down every black and colored (non-white) in South Africa. It seemed during his years of opposition and then violence that he had forgotten the lessons of the Methodist church where he was raised like so many Reservation inhabitants in this country. He earned the name of terrorist by running guns for the African National Congress and using them to counteract the hideous behavior of police and authorities against blacks.

The ANC was formed to provide the strength in numbers required to mount a national offensive against a regime bent on killing all who opposed the sequestering blacks on small patches of homelands (reservations) and using many as de facto slaves in the gold and diamond mines, on white ranches and in factories. Families were broken up and much of the tribal power and organization was destroyed by the practices of the apartheid government. At their trial, Mandela and friends expected to be sentenced to death, but were sent to prison for life instead.

He spent 27 years on an island like Alcatraz as a common prisoner, frequently humiliated, tortured, and forced to work at hard labor in terrible heat, cold, and storms without proper clothing, food, or medical attention. His jailers told him he had no power there and would not acknowledge his leadership position at first.

Mandela chose to behave as a leader, giving support to his fellow inmates, organizing any activities, fun, or inspiration he could find to keep their spirits up. Alone in his cell, he used his knowledge and belief in both his tribal religion and in Christian values to tame the rage and sorrow within him. The isolation was particularly hard when his children died. He was allowed to go home for his mother’s funeral, but was rushed back after only a few hours.

But his strength in the grace of God taught him how to forgive his jailers who had personally wronged him. It taught him to love life and the fruits of life – all people and all living things. He incorporated this new power into his ample political skills as the ANC began the legal groundwork for the freedom of his people (all his peoples). He negotiated beyond the head of prisons to the political heads and finally the President of South Africa himself. He had made such a name for himself for exemplifying freedom even while in prison that the government feared the country would go wild if he were injured or further maligned.

So they moved Mandela to a beautiful house outside a mainland prison where he was held far from friends and his tribal family, though his wife and children were eventually allowed to join him. But he knew he was bringing the government down just by his steady belief in freedom, justice, and law. He persevered. Meanwhile groups all over the world had begun to back him by boycotting South African goods and companies. Working in unison, South Africa’s white supremacy was broken and black and colored people freed. Mandela’s final move was to accept the candidacy of the presidency by popular acclaim and then ascend t the head of the government by universal vote.

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But what state did he inherit? A country in ruins, its’ huge black population furious for the generations of horrible treatment, the whites personally frightened and fearful of losing their businesses and property in retaliation, and the economy crumbled by international sanctions. Mandela responded by denouncing violence and dedicating himself to a life of pacifism.

To this huge and awful state of affairs, Mandela with his faithful friends of all races and religions like Rev. Desmond Tutu instigated the heartbreaking Truth and Reconciliation trials of all those accused of crimes against humanity. How could anyone even ask a mother to forgive the man who raped and killed her pregnant daughter? The man who viciously killed a group of school children? The men who tortured and killed her husband and brother? Through this very painful process, the South Africans under the leadership of Nelson Mandela showed the world how to use the Christian values of love and forgiveness to heal these wounds. And most unusual of all, letting all the negatives go. Just forgive and move on, realizing that as long as the terrible mistakes are acknowledged, healing can take place in those wronged.

When I met Nelson Mandela in 2000, I was overwhelmed by the deep spiritual presence he exuded. I could not see him from my seat in the front row when he entered the large, crowded room from the back, but I could feel it. The presence of Spirit was powerful as this humble man made his way to the front, sitting only a few feet directly in front of me.

He was everything I could imagine. He had a continence of total integrity, a man fully in control of himself and a supreme example of humanism. Did he actually glow? No longer President, he still was up to date on events and welcomed my group of educators warmly and personally, discussing the state of education and higher education in South Africa. He spoke factually about the role our host university had played as a stronghold for apartheid discrimination only years before, but honestly and warmly congratulating the University President on its turnaround and true friendship he now felt. His love and appreciation was genuine and apparent to all present. He showed us how to mend fences within our own institutions.

I was able to speak alone with him after the event. Although I had brought copies of his biography and autobiography to sign, I had the wisdom to not ask a man of his spiritual bearing for his autograph as though he were merely famous and not the epitome of grace and right living. Instead I thanked him for being a bright light to the world as the hands of God, giving his personal life for so many years to all of us who wish to make this a much better and kinder world. He has brought us all together with the example of his own life by showing us how to implement higher values in the toughest of circumstances without meanness and retribution. Surely we could do this in our own little corners of the world.

And then he turned from me with great joy shining on his smiling face as a youth choir at the back of the room began singing the beautiful harmonious traditional songs for which South Africa’s native people are so famous. He beamed his appreciation at them during their entire concert. Typically, at the end of their performance he shook hands with each of them, thanking them for the joy they had personally given to all of us. His spiritual mastery was in uniting people in good and realizing their personal contribution to making the world a better place.

Now, Nelson Mandela has passed on – that tribal member who lived so large that the entire world and all its leaders from spiritual leaders like the Dalai Lama and the Pope to political leaders like Pres. Obama, Pres. Putin and former Pres. De Klerk, who had at one time been his nemesis and later shared the Nobel Peace Prize with him to those of us who knew a man that compelled respect for a life well lived mourned together. Our commitment is renewed for using our highest values to make this world more beautiful, joyous and free. O hetchetu!

Nancy OmahaBoy, Ph.D., formerly of Rosebud, South Dakota, now resides in Pennsylvania. She was in leadership positions at Sinte Gleska University, Wenatchee Valley College in WA, Reading Area Community College, Pennsylvania, and Rutgers University in New Jersey. She dedicates this article to the spiritual growth of all her grandchildren at home in South Dakota and across the country.