As world leaders converge on South Africa this week to pay tribute to Nelson Mandela, the rest of us are left to mourn and memorialize in our own ways.

The tweets continue to come in by the thousands on Twitter. Oprah Winfrey, who established a school for girls in South Africa, was tweeting her own experiences of meeting and talking with Mandela on Sunday, sharing things Mandela had said to her and told her over the years she knew him. Bill and Chelsea Clinton, both of whom do work through the Clinton Foundation in Africa and have worked closely with Mandela, continued to post photos and memories of him. UNICEF ambassador Mia Farrow posted a lovely photo of her son, MSNBC’s Ronan Farrow, as a child talking with Mandela.

Many writers and other notables had words to share in tweet after tweet. Maya Angelou, who had known Mandela since before he’d been imprisoned in 1964, said simply, “Our planet has lost a friend.”

When South African President Jacob Zuma announced Mandela’s death in Johannesburg, he had said, “He is now resting. Our nation has lost its greatest son. Our people have lost a father.”

Zuma was talking about South Africans, but Mandela’s reach, as Angelou suggested, was global. Our people seems to have been all people. You could see this on social media. It wasn’t just celebrities memorializing Mandela since his death Thursday night when most South Africans were sleeping. Women and men from around the world were also expressing their feelings–some sharing photos, others sharing thoughts. Few, it seems, are untouched by Mandela and his presence.

For me, Mandela was a touchstone, someone whose life and words and example resonated most in my work as an activist writer.

There was no time in my life when I wasn’t political; I was raised on politics in an activist household. But my early years as an activist in high school and even college were directed largely by events and social upheaval around me. In the 1980s, however, my politics were shaped more specifically: by radical feminist and gay politics. And by Mandela.

The activist writer needs a model. Some activists dismiss this idea, as if their writing happens in a vacuum, but that’s not honest. Those of us who are at heart political writers are shaped by events, yes, but there is always someone who is the true north of our political compass. I had two of those: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose work informed my earliest years as a teenage activist, and Nelson Mandela, whose work was a guidepost for me as I began my activist writing in earnest.

 In the late 1980s I was living part of the time in London where my then-partner lived. In those years London was the locus of the two fights I was waging as a writer: the AIDS epidemic and freeing Nelson Mandela from prison. Those two issues were raised during nearly every meal I shared, nearly every conversation I had in London. The activist community was focused: we wanted AIDS cured and the dying to stop and we wanted Mandela released and apartheid abolished.

Those of us who were young and passionate presumed we could achieve both if we just drew enough attention to our fight for justice. We believed we could free the imprisoned and save the dying.

For people who have come of age since Mandela was released from prison, it’s difficult to articulate the urgency we felt in those years leading up to his release. Every day it felt like the injustice intensified. How could we enjoy our lives, no matter how conscripted, if Mandela was continuing to suffer such indignities in prison? We had to protest more, write more. We had to keep Mandela’s name and plight in the forefront of global consciousness. We had to.

As I wrote about Mandela in those years, as I protested in front of the South African embassy on Trafalgar Square, as I bypassed the produce from South Africa in the Tesco’s in Hackney where so many South African immigrants lived, I could see so clearly the parallels in apartheid for those of us living in the LGBT community–a community apart, a community always at risk, a community that was united only by what it didn’t have.

All oppression isn’t the same, yet when one is oppressed, there is a solidarity one feels with other oppressed people that cannot be denied, dismissed or overstated. Many of us protesting in London felt an affinity with Mandela. Those of us who were queer knew that given a slight shift in circumstances we could be Mandela. Not the icon, but the prisoner. A forgotten prisoner, not an international cause celebre. Because to be gay almost anywhere in the world at that time–or even now–meant that prison was always a possibility, violence always probable, hate inevitable.

When I wrote about Mandela in those years of protest before his release on February 11, 1990, I knew that it was possible he would never be released, but I never lost passion for the protest. After he was released, I realized with such clarity how much he had influenced those of us who had been involved in the struggle for his release. Mandela taught us about activism in ways we could otherwise never have known. He taught us about what it was to lose one’s youth to activism and still remain full of life, ready to literally fight another day, even another lifetime.

Desmond Tutu wrote the day after Mandela’s death, that prison was a crucible for Mandela. Our protests over Mandela’s imprisonment were a crucible for activist writers like myself. They honed our perspective on a world we could readily imagine, yet had not experienced. They showed us what was at stake and what we might have to give up and what was required for true change to happen.

Mandela wrote from Robben Island just as Dr. King had written from that Birmingham jail. He went in angry, Tutu writes, but he came out changed, breaking the bonds of his imprisonment by denying his jailors an endless raging bitterness. It wasn’t so much that Mandela forgave them as it was that he refuted their presumptions about him. He wasn’t their kafir, nor was he a terrorist. He was a statesman. He walked and talked and stood in quiet elegant grace like a statesman and what I wanted to know as a writer and activist who was (am) still very much raging was: How did he reach that place?

 I’m still wondering about that now, all these years after Mandela was released, in these few days since he has died.  As I read Tutu’s column memorializing Mandela, I was mulling over what it is to forgive our oppressors, and if we are all up to that job or even should be. I recall watching Tutu give testimony at the Truth and Reconciliation hearings that Mandela established after he was elected. Tutu wept–not just a few tears, but he openly sobbed. But Tutu is a priest–it’s in his DNA to forgive. And Mandela–he got more and more saintly as he aged. The obituaries are paeans. Even Republicans like John Boehner and Ted Cruz whose politics are antithetical to Mandela’s have released statements of glowing approbation of him. UK PM David Cameron, who argued for Mandela to be executed in those days when I was out in front of the South African embassy in London, will be among those at Mandela’s memorial service and is one of those lauding him now.

But what about us activists? What kind of crucible has been forged for us by Mandela’s ability to transcend the truly horrifying impact apartheid and prison had on him? Not all of us are leaders–we don’t all emerge from a quarter century isolation and torture willing or able to transcend such acute suffering.

That pain–the pain of Tutu sobbing, the pain we understand from his writings that Mandela suffered–that pain of oppression is so exquisitely unbearable, how in any God’s name do we actually let it go? Can Mandela’s life teach us how to reach that Zen place of acceptance he seemed to have achieved?

Or is that not the path for everyone? Mandela was 45 when he was sentenced to life in prison. He’s described everywhere as having been a young man then, but he was middle-aged. He was 72 when he was released. And up to the point of his incarceration, he was angry and rageful and determined and had most recently decided that violence was an essential tool of the revolution he intended for South Africa to end apartheid and free black South Africans.

All of which should make us ponder as activists, ponder as political writers. The elder Mandela was a gentle man, a graceful and grace-filled man, a man who had chosen to access joy rather than continue on a path of anger. Mandela said, “I was not a messiah, but an ordinary man who had become a leader because of extraordinary circumstances.”

Yet not everyone who is “ordinary” as Mandela asserts he was can do such extraordinary things as he did. Not everyone chooses the path of social justice. But Mandela was always on that path–before prison, in prison, after prison.

One of the most compelling stories for me of Mandela’s later years was his meeting with Nkosi Johnson, a South African child with AIDS. Johnson was a young activist who I had written about in the context of AIDS reporting. (He died of AIDS in 2001 at 12.) Mandela met with him and said he was and “icon of the struggle for life.”

Johnson informed Mandela’s fight against HIV/AIDS, which claimed the life of his son Makgatho, 54. Mandela revealed his son had died of AIDS in 2005. He established a foundation–the 46664 Foundation (the number was his prisoner number on Robben Island) to further education on HIV/AIDS as well. He worked with Bill Clinton on HIV/AIDS and the two were co-chairs of the advisory board of the International AIDS Trust. Mandela continued to be a voice for awareness even as it became unpopular to discuss it.

So Mandela not only wasn’t immune to other activists, he clearly followed them–even a then-ten-year-old–and he continued on his own activist path throughout his years post-presidency. He fought for inclusion of LGBT people in the South African constitution, he fought for equality for women in a country where women’s status was abysmal. He fought and fought and was an activist until he was too ill to fight any longer.

How can we not follow that example of activism? How can we not demand that same passion for our own community as he had for his nation’s entire people?

One of Mandela’s most compelling writings was his long, complex speech delivered at the infamous Rivonia Trial. The statement lays out the full history of his involvement with the anti-colonialist movement and the ANC. (The full text can be read at here. The speech clarifies the events that led to Mandela’s imprisonment.)

At the end of his statement, Mandela said, “During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities.”

He ended, “It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

 I believe he was absolutely prepared to die for the cause of freedom at that point in his life. That is, I think, why I and so many others were so passionately devoted to his cause: He represented true activism, core activism, give me liberty or give me death activism. He was willing to die for what he believed. He was willing to die for the cause of freedom.

 Is any of us willing to do that, now?

Mandela’s death has perforce made us examine his life and our own. And this is a constant: he was always willing to die for his beliefs, for freedom, for the freedom of others. Even as he said of Nkosi Johnson that the boy was an icon in the struggle for life, he himself was always willing to die to preserve the lives of others.

 As an activist writer, I pose that question to our own community: Are any of us willing to die for the freedom of our people? And is our failure to embrace such willingness a failure of our movement for true liberation?

Those same years I was protesting to “Free Mandela,” I was also participating in die-ins and other AIDS protests. Those of us who were willing to be arrested, however, were still few. And none of us who weren’t already dying from AIDS were prepared to die. In fact, we were desperate to keep ourselves and our friends and lovers alive.

 Mandela said, “To be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”

Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the democratic opposition in Myanmar and herself a political prisoner for over 25 years said of Mandela’s passing, “He made us understand that we can change the world.”

Mandela certainly made me feel that. The example of his life made me believe that there was nothing more important than activism, that creating change, than moving forward and bringing others with us when we did so. Mandela described himself as an optimist, and said, “part of being an optimist is keeping one’s head pointed toward the sun, one’s feet moving forward.”

 Mandela moved all of South Africa forward. His activist life was absolutely breathtaking when viewed in its totality. How could he not be my model–everyone’s model–for activism?

 I never knew Mandela. I saw him, finally, in Philadelphia a few years after his release when he received the Liberty Medal here, bestowed by then-President Bill Clinton. He stood there in the a hot sun as intense as the day he was released from prison on the Fourth of July receiving one of our nation’s greatest honors in front of Independence Hall. He was so close as he stood there, delivering his speech. As I watched, I thought of those cold gray days in front of the embassy and how bleak those days and our fears that he would never be freed had been.

I shall miss Mandela. His life literally changed the world–he shone a light on darkness and drove out the shadows with his seemingly endless courage and bravery.

That legacy, his courageous life, impels me still. It is too soon after his death to fully take in what his life has meant, to fully articulate his impact on the world. But I know this: his activism made me believe that I could give my own life to activism.

 Mandela said, “There is no easy walk to freedom anywhere, and many of us will have to pass through the valley of the shadow of death again and again before we reach the mountaintop of our desires.”

Mandela achieved his freedom from prison, his nation’s freedom from apartheid. His legacy is awesome in the truest sense of that word, yet it is also daunting. He has left us with so much work to be done.

As LGBT people we are not free anywhere in the world. Can we follow Mandela’s example? Can we be, as he said of himself, ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances? Can we free our community in our lifetime?

 I mourn Mandela, but I also celebrate him. Zuma said, “He is at rest,” but I disbelieve that–I believe that Mandela’s brave, indomitable spirit attends and compels us still. The only question is, are we equal to its calling?

Photo via the Nelson Mandela Foundation 



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  • Lou Kief

One Response to “Mourning Mandela: an Activist Writer Recalls an Activist’s Life”

  1. […] A lovely tribute to Nelson Mandela published on Lamba Literary. […]



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