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Herb Boyd's reflections on Nelson Mandela

Herb Boyd | 12/12/2013, 4:13 p.m.
Herb Boyd

Only minutes after talking to Lisa Vives, executive director of Global Information Network—someone I hadn’t spoken to for years—about appearing on a panel to discuss Danny Schechter’s book on Nelson Mandela, titled “Madiba: A to Z,” breaking news interrupted programming Thursday evening to announce that Nelson Mandela was dead.

I was as surprised to hear from Vives as I was stunned to hear that Mandela, 95, had “joined the ages,” as more than one reporter observed about the great South African icon.

In the summer of 1990, I was among the thousands jamming the intersection at 125th Street and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard to hear the recently liberated Mandela speak. The moment was made all the more memorable with the sight of such local stalwarts as Elombe Brath, Dhoruba bin Wahad and Dr. Betty Shabazz sharing the stage with him.

Four years later, I was in Cape Town to cover the elections, and it was absolutely amazing to see the long lines of voters—some of them stretching across the countryside—with people trembling in the chilly dawn, patiently waiting to participate in a democracy that wasn’t theirs in the draconian days of apartheid. Many said they had waited years to vote, so to wait a little longer was of no consequence.

It was a seemingly endless celebration when Mandela was elected president, and the news came in the late hours in the same, though less ceremonious way current President Jacob Zuma brought the sadness to his nation.

Mandela, affectionately known as Madiba, his tribal name, died at 8:50 p.m. local time, and Zuma said, “Our nation has lost its greatest son.” And the world lost a man who exemplified human rights and was the personification of a freedom fighter.

When I traveled to South Africa in 2001 as a delegate to the World Conference Against Racism, I made a side trip to Soweto with hopes of seeing Mandela or to speak with his former wife, Winnie Mandela. By that time, Nelson Mandela had moved to his ancestral homeland of Qunu and Winnie Mandela was not at home, which was a veritable shrine. Neither was there, but I was able to meet other family members and neighbors who showered me with love and respect. Later, during the conference in Durban, Mandela’s name was often evoked with reverence and nobility—words that only faintly comport the power of his charisma and persona.

I made two other memorable trips to South Africa, one with Gordon Parks and the other on my own in 1988, where I was visiting Soweto and taking photos when the South African police surrounded me, took my camera, stripped all the film from it, threw it to the ground and trampled it. Someone had posted an image of Mandela on a crumbling wall, and my photo of that was among the other negatives under the foot of the police officer. All images of Mandela were forbidden, and they immediately extinguished that image of him.

What Rep. Charles Rangel conveyed in his memory of Mandela echoed my estimation of his influence. “I have long thought of Nelson Mandela to be the epitome of sainthood,” the Harlem representative related in a press