Written by Sharon Gelman; above photo: ©ANSA and Peter McKenzie
These days, my thoughts are frequently with Nelson Mandela. I am praying for his healing and also hoping we’ll all find the strength to let him go with grace and dignity when he is ready to depart this world.
For the past 22 years, I’ve headed Artists for a New South Africa (ANSA), formerly Artists for a Free South Africa (AFSA). When AFSA was founded in 1989 by Alfre Woodard, Danny Glover, Mary Steenburgen, Blair Underwood, CCH Pounder and friends, we didn’t think we’d live to see apartheid fall nor did we dare dream that Nelson Mandela would one day be president. We just knew supporting the fight against apartheid was the right thing to do. However, scarcely a year later, I found myself at a church, waiting for Madiba’s release from prison. We sang and danced through the night until he finally appeared on the TV, walking free after 27 years. He was dignified and unbowed and his face was full of joy.
Soon after, Mr. Mandela came to L.A. as part of a world tour. Without much lead time, AFSA helped plan a gala that raised over a million dollars. In the midst of our event, his doctor asked me to bring him some water without ice. I’ve never been more honored or more careful about pouring water into a glass.
That night, Alfre introduced Madiba with an impassioned speech that went something like, “Tata Mandela, I wish I were a million people toyi-toying to welcome you here tonight. I wish I were the voices of 10,000 African woman ululating, but I am just one black woman.”¯ In the midst of her speech, she interrupted herself and said, “Madiba, you look so tired. Are you getting enough rest? How long will you be in town? Do you have time to come to my house for dinner? I make such good chicken.”
Many people have told me it was Madiba’s favorite introduction of all time. I imagine that’s because everyone celebrates him as an icon, but Alfre also expressed genuine concern for him just as a fellow human being who was in the midst of a punishing schedule. It’s so easy to put a revered leader on a pedestal and forget he’s also a person with the same basic needs we all have. Recognizing that humanity also means we can’t leave the job of fixing the world to our heroes. Each of us has the capacity and responsibility to make a difference in ways both big and small.
Photo Credit: Sharon Gelman
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