On December 5th, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, affectionately known as Tata Madiba to some, transitioned to the ancestral realm. His name rings in many corners of the globe and on Tuesday he was memorialized in South Africa, but his relevance and importance to global and local freedom struggles cannot be underestimated. In the past few days, many accounts have sought to paint him as both revolutionary and peaceful, anti-establishment, as well as establishmentarian—the truth is that in 95 his years Mandela was all of these things. Through my own lens as an African-American with Pan-Africanist sensibilities, his diverse personas lent me insight into what “a long walk to freedom” looked like and why we all must engage in the process of creating, not only more just communities, but a more just world.


I first heard Nelson Mandela’s name as a child when discussions of apartheid in South Africa pulsed across the television screen. At the time, no one in my household was particularly educated on the politics of apartheid so his name was one of many that was heard but did not resonate. He became immortalized in my memory one Thursday night when Sondra and Elvin of the Cosby show named their twins Winnie and Nelson, which I learned was in honor of Winnie and Nelson Mandela who were married at the time, but physically separated by his incarceration.  For me, like many in my generation, the name Nelson Mandela started as a symbol. Over time we would discover the substance of the man, his struggles, crusades, and that for which he stood. 


When I say that Nelson Mandela was a symbol, I do not mean to suggest he was without politics and purpose. Rather, I am suggesting that his life’s journey, his work and his significance to globe, far exceed the body of a single person or a singular classification. My connection to Mandela came as I studied him in 1990s and learned what a political prisoner was. Until his release, I had no idea that hundreds of people across the globe remained incarcerated not for their crimes, but more for their political beliefs. It was Mandela’s release and discussions of his past that led me to learn that the United States held hundreds of political prisoners like Robert Seth Hayes. Reading about Mandela’s imprisonment pushed me to rethink the idea that incarceration was just and necessary. It took my looking to Robben Island to see the inhumanity of Rikers Island in my own backyard; that was the power of Mandela’s life.


In reading about a young Madiba, I learned he used every tool available to resist apartheid, which taught me some of my first lessons about revolutionary engagement. Mandela was a thinker, a fighter, a lover of his people, but he was not alone. Steve Bantu Biko, Lilian Ngoyi and countless freedom fighters whose names will never grace the pages of history books or silver screen made sacrifices for justice that would never see in their lifetime. I learned that revolutionary struggle is protracted, dangerous, but most importantly, necessary. His fighting spirit emboldened me to not only identify injustice but commit to fighting it, even if it came at a personal cost. I learned that Mandela’s incarceration was not the lone act of a rogue South African state, that it was supported by superpowers including the United States. These national sins did not end with fall of apartheid; Mandela remained on a United States Terrorist watch list until 2008.


Upon his release from prison, I was taught of Nelson Mandela’s forgiveness and the road to healing in South Africa. In the halcyon days of the 1990s I read this as a story of reconciliation and justice, but that was only part of reality. As I sought the narratives of everyday Black South Africans I found that many of the issues that plagued them, particularly social and economic marginalization, still existed. I was reminded of the conditions of African-Americans in the post-Civil Rights Era; the Promised Land remains in the distance.


Mandela’s transition from prisoner, to diplomat, to president and politician was fascinating to watch from thousands of miles away. I observed him navigate international forces and local interests, resulting in a complicated dance, one that at sometimes was more offbeat than on. He made me wonder if revolutionaries were ever meant to be presidents? If forgiving past transgressions was more important than redistributing ill-gotten spoils? If electoral politics were an ends or a means?  In reality, Mandela’s presidency helped level my expectations for the election of the United States’ first Black President, Barack Obama.


Nelson Mandela was a father and husband. He married three times in his life, though Winnie is often the most celebrated of his partners. I learned his first marriage dissolved because of his deep political engagements. I saw the image of Winnie and Nelson as the portrait of revolutionary love. I read portions of the letters Winnie sent to him in prison and learned how she lived under surveillance and harassment as he lay trapped, away from his beloved people and country. I felt a pang when I learned that they were to divorce in 1996. I read about his marriage in 1998 to activist Graca Machel and hoped their partnering would serve as a model of radical love that so many of us so dearly need to see. While I never got to know the intimate details of his marriages, they taught me that the politics of our intimate relationships are equally, if not more important than, our politics towards the world.


I have my own relationship to Madiba, as I am sure many of you do. His legacy is one of struggle, justice, and love. He was complicated, we as a people are complicated. In the coming days and years, we will learn more about him and hopefully learn as many lessons in his death as we did in his life. I believe that is the way Tata Madiba would have wanted it.


Dr. R. L'Heureux Lewis-McCoy is an Assistant Professor of Sociology and Black Studies at the City College of New York. His work concentrates on race, education and gender. You can follow him on Twitter @dumilewis or visit his website.