« A long walk to freedom »

Nelson Mandela

The 5th December 2013 was certainly a day to remember. The announcement of the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize winner’s death set the world reeling in shock – despite the many months leading up to this unfortunate event – and made many reflect on what the world had to thank Nelson Mandela for.

The 10th of December 2013 saw viewers glued to their TV and computer screens: in South Africa alone, 50 000 people viewed the memorial service live and 5000 attended the ceremony in person: it is estimated that 2000 people walked by the former South African President’s casket each hour that it was on display.

The array of mourners who had come from so many different places so as to give homage to the ex-President showed just how many people he had moved in his lifetime. Symbolically speaking, who better to deliver a formidable speech at the first black South African’s president’s memorial service than Barack Obama, the first black president of the United States of America. More than two hundred Heads of State and other public figures attended the service, thus showing their sorrow over Madiba’s passing. Not only had a political figure died, but a symbol had left us too.

But what exactly did Nelson Mandela represent?

Not only did he embody the end of the racial segregation implemented under the apartheid, but he also represented the will to carry on the fight even in the face of such overwhelming obstacles. After spending 27 years in prison, he emerged with radically new ideas: no longer convinced that violence was the way to make a difference, Mandela became an advocate for peaceful change. He persuaded thousands of South Africans that the best way to rebuild their nation was to look in the same direction and not to seek revenge among each other.

Nelson Mandela is an extraordinary example of the power of a name, although the importance of the name Mandela is but a mere reflection of the astonishing symbol that he was and remains to be even after his death. Nelson Mandela embodied the fight for racial equality in a country deeply afflicted by the apartheid regime, and whose citizens feared the end of such a regime because of the repercussions that could – and did ensue.

Nelson Mandela’s famous influence has certainly not failed to be commercialized: the surname Mandela has been used for « House of Mandela » wine and various political parties are now fighting over the right to associate his name to their campaign while many Mandela products – such as clothes, books or coins – are being hurriedly snatched off the shelves. Films such as Invictus (2009), an international success, or Nelson Mandela, that was released only two weeks after his death, are further examples of Madiba’s commercial and cultural value.

As with all symbols, we do tend to embellish reality and it is important to remember that Nelson Mandela was far from being perfect. But what is essential is that at the end of his life, Mandela was remembered not for the violent acts of his youth but for for his resilience, his strength and his capacity to forgive and forget.

Nelson Mandela not only became a cultural icon for race equality during the darkest period of South Africa’s history, but he also embodied cultural understanding and the difficult choice of following the path of what is right rather than what is easy. The world will remember how he inspired us all with his “long walk to freedom.”

Après le décès de Nelson Mandela en décembre 2013, comment ne pas se pencher sur le rôle de cet homme dans le démantèlement de l’apartheid en Afrique du Sud? Réflexion sur le pouvoir d’un symbole culturel hors du commun.

 By Nathalie d’Abbadie

Photo credit: Impact 

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