I cannot even begin to fully assess the influence of Nelson Mandela on my life. From first hearing his name as a teenager to fighting against apartheid through disinvestment campaigns as a student at Durham University in the 1970s; from my outrage at the killing of Steve Biko in September 1977 to my exultation at Madiba’s freedom from prison in February 1990; from my tears at his inauguration as President in May 1994 to my awe at his visit to Brixton, South London on July 12 1996 where, only feet away, I took this precious picture, Madiba has been a towering figure, a colossus in my life.
In 2005 I visited Robben Island where he was incarcerated by the apartheid regime for part of his 27 years in prison. The tour guides around the prison were all ex-prisoners, African National Congress (ANC) ‘terrorists’. Our guide said that the captain of the boat that bought us from the mainland used to be one of his jailers during the regime. He said that owing to the Truth and Reconciliation Process, the captain confessed his role, was not prosecuted and that while not friends, the guide and his former jailer were cordial.
After we walked into the main hall of the prison, the guide came in last and slammed the heavy metal door shut. It gave a loud, crashing sound. We all jumped and were reminded what incarceration was like. We were shown Madiba’s tiny cell. As a big man, the guide said he had to sleep on the floor diagonally. We were shown the limestone quarry where Madiba and his fellow inmates did hard labor. We were shown the place where he gardened. We were also told about a more hopeful name for the prison: ‘Robben Island University’ where ANC inmates debated political ideologies, subterfuge and strategized the regime’s overthrow after lights out.
Madiba, I thank you for constantly inspiring me in my life and in my work on just sustainabilities. I thank you for your dignity, humility and humanity; for your intelligence and your tenacity and for your deep sense of hope and your courage in changing a nation and the world for the better. You lit a candle which burned brightly and developed into a fire. You join a group of immortals for whom we will never have the right words to fully express our gratitude, but, paraphrasing the words of President Obama: “You no longer belong to us, you belong to the ages.” Thank you Madiba.