Written by Robin Marty
Nelson Mandela, icon for human rights activism, pioneer in the battle of apartheid and the first black president of South Africa, died at home today at the age of 95 after battling a long illness that kept him hospitalized over recent months, reports the BBC.
Mandela was the key figure in South Africa’s struggle to end the rule of the minority white population over the majority black citizens of the country. He was known for using non-violent tactics and protests while pushing toward a new land of equal rights regardless of race. In 1964 he was sentenced to life in prison for his work in desegregation. He served 27 years before being released.
Three years later, in 1993, Mandela was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. He became the country’s first black president in 1994. “The time for the healing of the wounds has come. The moment to bridge the chasms that divide us has come,” he said in his acceptance speech. He then stepped down in 1999 for his deputy, Thabo Mbeki.
After leaving office, he continued to do advocacy work, particularly around issues such as political oppression and HIV, before mostly retiring from public appearances in the mid 2000s.
“Real leaders must be ready to sacrifice all for the freedom of their people,” Mandela said at a 1998 public event. To many figures across the globe, he was the embodiment of such a leader, and his loss is being deeply mourned.
“Our people have lost a father,” said current South African President Jacob Zuma, after telling his nation of Mandela’s passing. “Although we knew this day was going to come, nothing can diminish our sense of a profound and enduring loss. His tireless struggle for freedom earned him the respect of the world. His humility, passion and humanity earned him their love. Our nation has lost its greatest son.”
“Nelson Mandela lived for that ideal, and he made it real,” said President Barack Obama in a statement. ”He achieved more than could be expected of any man. Today he’s gone home. We have lost one of the most influential, courageous, and profoundly good human beings that any of us will ever share time with on this earth. He no longer belongs with us, he belongs with the ages.”
“May the life of Nelson Mandela long stand as the ultimate tribute to the triumph of hope,” said Minority Leader Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D – CA). “May his story long remind us to always look forward with optimism to the future. May it be a comfort to his family, to his friends and loved ones, to the people of South Africa that so many mourn the loss of this extraordinary man and incredible leader at this sad time.”
The value of his life and leadership may be a sole moment of bipartisan agreement on the Hill. “Nelson Mandela was an unrelenting voice for democracy and his ‘long walk to freedom’ showed an enduring faith in God and respect for human dignity,” Speaker of the House Rep. John Boehner (R – OH) said in a statement. “His perseverance in fighting the apartheid system will continue to inspire future generations. Mandela led his countrymen through times of epic change with a quiet moral authority that directed his own path from prisoner to president.”
World leaders offered similar praise. “A great light has gone out in the world. Nelson Mandela was a hero of our time,” said David Cameron, British Prime Minister, while former South African leaders referred to him as a “Father” of the country.
The Nelson Mandela Foundation expressed deepest sorrow to its beloved founder. “No words can adequately describe this enormous loss to our nation and to the world. We give thanks for his life, his leadership, his devotion to humanity and humanitarian causes. We salute our friend, colleague and comrade and thank him for his sacrifices for our freedom.”
To better understand Mandela in his own words, the following video is his first interview after nearly three decades in prison:
Please honor the memory of Nelson Mandela and his life’s work by pledging to do everything you can in your own life to advance equality and justice.