In life Nelson Mandela was called a rebel, a freedom fighter, a terrorist, Mr. President, a healer, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and an inspiration to millions.
The world has joined South Africa this week in paying homage to Madiba — a title of respect and a tribute to his ancestral clan — who died on Dec. 5 at age 95.
Tributes to Mandela poured in from elected officials in Queens, and also from people who long supported what Mandela was able to achieve after emerging from 27 years of imprisonment in 1989.
John Watusi Branch, executive director of the Afrikan Poetry Theatre in Jamaica, has traveled to Africa numerous times, including with student groups. He said there need be no confusion about whether to mourn or celebrate Mandela.
“In Africa, they’re doing both,” Branch said. “In the West, we tend to mourn more, and people are doing that. But at the ceremonies, you see things like people playing drums. It is a celebration of his life.”
Mandela was a lawyer in racially segregated South Africa, which was governed by a white minority under apartheid policies for much of the 20th century.
He became politically active as a young man. Africa, aside from its own troubles internal and external, also served as a proxy between the West and the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
Both Mandela, who generally was to the left politically and was arrested several times following speeches and rallies, and some groups he associated with eventually came to embrace violent resistance.
Arrested and convicted in 1962, he served 27 years in prison. But Mandela and the struggle against apartheid eventually gained the attention of the world.
Countless boycotts of and protests against South Africa were organized in the United States, but were long ignored by the U.S. government.
President Ronald Reagan vetoed official government economic sanctions while in office. James Baker, Reagan’s former chief of staff, said in numerous published reports last week that Reagan came to regret the decision.
Carl Clay, head of Jamaica’s Black Spectrum Theatre, joined the pickets outside the South African Consulate in Manhattan beginning in the 1970s.
“He was a great man,” Clay said. “I think what made him an even more iconic figure was his embrace of forgiveness, his ability to decide to move on. It was truly a unique quality that helped change the world.”
A still-imprisoned Mandela’s opponents said his release could trigger waves of violence. Indeed, a national commission established in 1996 found that Mandela’s ex-wife Winnie was directly and indirectly implicated in kidnappings, torture and murder of opponents.
“I think reconciliation was kind of surprising for some from a man who had spent 27 years in prison,” Branch said. “The African National Congress had engaged in a guerilla war against the government and [reconciliation] was not popular with some of the people in the movement. But for him, the conversation on reconciliation was a pan-African issue. That is why he was so respected, why he was able to have the influence he did.”
Mandela joined with then-South Africa President F. W. de Klerk in talks in 1994 to establish multiracial elections. His ANC won a hefty majority in the legislature, and he became president. He declined in 1999 to run for a second five-year term though the new constitution permitted it.
Mandela’s life, his struggles and his triumphs have been portrayed in movies, documentaries, on stage and in art.
Clay, a filmmaker by trade, says his personal favorite is “Invictus,” the 2009 movie in which Morgan Freeman’s portrayal of Mandela earned him an Oscar nomination for best actor.
Directed by Clint Eastwood, the movie centers around Mandela’s efforts in 1995 to rally and unify his still strife-riven country behind South Africa’s national rugby team as it competed for the sport’s World Cup. Matt Damon was nominated for best supporting actor as team captain Francois Pienaar.
“Some of the documentaries have been very good,” Clay said. “It showed his ability to look at life from a perspective that was not about race. It wasn’t a white rugby team — these were South Africa’s players. It was more than a game. It was an inspiration.”