As part of the celebration, South Africans are encouraged to take part in Nelson Mandela Day activities and to volunteer at least 67 minutes of time supporting a charity or working in local communities. That’s one minute for each of the 67 years of his life Mandela gave fighting for the rights of the oppressed in South Africa and around the world.
For our part, Jenny and I will be volunteering with others from the University of Pretoria this Saturday in Mamelodi. Mamelodi is a township outside of Pretoria that was established under apartheid. In the 1960’s, black South Africans were forcefully removed their homes and relocated to Mamelodi and other townships. While we have visited a township called Khayelitsha outside of Cape Town as tourists, I’m sure this experience as volunteers — and adopted South Africans — will be different and hopefully deeper.
I have to say, the feeling of being a part of anything remotely related to Nelson Mandela is electric. He is one of a select few figures that emit such energy and possess such gravity, whether you are near him or thousands of miles from him. I mean, he is in a category with the likes of Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Dalai Lama. He is an inspiration to all.
Back in 2006, a year after Jenny and I visited Robben Island (where Mandela spent most of his 27 years in prison), I had the opportunity to work on a project to promote the Robben Island Singers during their visit to Chicago. These three men — Grant Shezi, Muntu Nxumalo and Thembinkosi Sithole — were also political prisoners on Robben Island. Now, they sing the songs and tell the stories of the struggle for freedom, sharing a message of forgiveness, tolerance and peace. It was a tremendous honor to meet these men and be a small part of their ongoing efforts.
While today is a happy day and this week will be filled with acts of kindness and spikes in volunteerism, it also reminds me that Mandela’s release did not put an end to the struggles here or elsewhere. There remains an institutional bias in favor of the white minority that will take some time to balance out, just like our systems continue to need balance in the United States.
It also reminds me that the practice of imprisoning political enemies or those who speak out against government abuses continues around the world, even in America. Human Rights Watch in Chicago recently screened a film called In the Land of the Free that chronicles the situation of the Angola 3, three men targeted by prison officials for being members of the Black Panther Party and kept in solitary confinement for decades. Two of the men remain in prison.
So, wherever you are and whatever you do, let’s all wish Madiba a happy 93rd birthday and try to spend at least 67 minutes improving our little corners of the world.