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Nelson MandelaNelson Mandela (1918-2013)
Photo Credit: Nelson Mandela Foundation: Living the Legacy


During his struggle to end apartheid in South Africa, Nelson Mandela was no stranger to the Guyanese people. I shared the pain and anger of the oppressed Blacks in South Africa. In the early 1980s, at a time when there was no Internet and online petitions, I joined thousands of my fellow Guyanese in signing the Free Mandela! petition circulating at my workplace in Georgetown, Guyana.

In Guyana, we faced our own form of separateness. The two major racial groups, Blacks and East Indians, had allowed racist politics to divide our young nation. A divide that exists to this day.

When Mandela was finally released from prison in 1990, after twenty-seven years of incarceration, I had already left Guyana with my husband and sons for Brazil. Racial violence and political oppression had culminated in the assassination of Walter Rodney, our “Mandela.”  The future of our nation was reduced to cinders.

The confinement and abuses of prison life could have transformed Mandela into an angry and bitter man. Instead, his years of isolation from society forced him to look within and to question his values, beliefs and relationship with his oppressors. He learned the power of humility, forgiveness, and love.

In his 1994 autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela wrote:

I am not truly free if I am taking away someone else’s freedom, just as surely as I am not free when my freedom is taken from me. The oppressed and the oppressor alike are robbed of their humanity.

At seventy-six, Mandela was ready to embrace his role as negotiator and conciliator between the minority white oppressive government and his people. Forgiveness and reconciliation with the enemy was by no means an easy sell. The transition to democratic elections with majority rule did not come without conflicts and more deaths.

We freed Mandela. Like other great leaders before him, he showed us the way forward to end the separateness of the human species. Forgiveness. Reconciliation. Love.

So simple… So difficult…

The truth is that we are not yet free… Mandela wrote in his 1994 autobiography. We have not taken the final step of our journey, but the first step on a longer and even more difficult road. For 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.

A young Guyanese undergraduate has embarked on that difficult road. In her blog post of 7 December 2013, “They brand us, play us and cast us aside,” she calls attention to:

the hate, anger and bitterness that simmer just under the skin of my country men and women; men and women whose minds have been chronically abused by the racial politics of our land.

Nelson Mandela, a man abused by the racial politics of apartheid, was a light in the darkness. With his passing, it is now up to each one of us to keep that light burning.