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MANDELA: Celebrating a life of service and struggle, but work yet remains

By Ashahed M. Muhammad -Asst. Editor- | Last updated: Jul 24, 2013 - 3:37:18 PM

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CHICAGO ( - The life and accomplishments of revered global icon and former South African  President Nelson Mandela were celebrated July 18 in honor of his 95th birthday.

Nelson Mandela Photo: South Africa The Good News
According to South Africa’s Consul General, Vuyiswa Tulelo, because of the leaders ailing health, this year’s activities took on special significance to organizers.

“We were instructed by the South African government, that because of the precarious situation of the health of President Mandela, we needed to amplify this day,” said Ms. Tulelo.

Mr. Mandela represents so much to my generation and to my people, she said.

“He is special in so many ways,” she said. “He is a man who espoused inclusivity,” added Ms. Tulelo, who hails from Kimberley in the Northern Cape province of South Africa. She was a leader within the African National Congress Youth League, and a distinguished organizer and diplomat before being assigned head of the South African mission here in July of 2012.

Throughout the Twitterverse, well wishes were delivered to the man affectionately called “Madiba” the name of the clan to which Mr. Mandela belongs. The hashtags #MandelaDay and #67 popped up in many different geographic areas. The significance of 67 represents the more than 67 years Mr. Mandela has been a servant of the people. Those participating in Mandela Day activities were encouraged to spend at least 67 minutes delivering service to others.

In 2010, the United Nations General Assembly established July 18, as Nelson Mandela International Day.

In Chicago, the day of education, service and celebration brought together students and community members to Chicago State University and also included community service at the Greater Food Depository on the city’s West side.

(L-R) Bronzeville Military Academy students Davon Pettis, 17, and Shavon Pettis, 17, Hyde Park Academy student Charmayne Lewis, 15, and Percy L. Julian student Serena Harris, 17. Photo: Ashahed M. Muhammad
A morning panel was held consisting of labor leader Harold Rogers, former chairman of the African-American studies department at Olive-Harvey College, Ishmael R. Muhammad, Min. Farrakhan’s assistant at the Nation of Islam’s National Center, Rev. Robin Hood of Ceasefire and Pastor John Harrell of Faith Community Baptist Church. It was moderated by Bishop James Springfield of Greater Hope Baptist Ministries. Portions of a documentary on Mr. Mandela’s life were shown to students from several high school and colleges.

Later, an evening celebration took place at the Douglas Building, also on the campus of Chicago State University. The South African Consulate General, Interfaith Illinois Inc., and the Council of Religious Leaders of Metropolitan Chicago worked together to assemble a diverse list of speakers who would share their views on Mr. Mandela’s impact in the area of politics, youth, women’s rights and labor with the younger students.  Mr. Mandela’s historical impact was discussed as well. 

Electricity filled the air as word spread that the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan and Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright were scheduled to deliver reflections on Mr. Mandela’s life and legacy.

Rev. Wright, pastor emeritus of Trinity United Church of Christ, read a long list of Mr. Mandela’s accomplishments. He said Mr. Mandela’s faith was forged “in the pain of Sharpeville, the suffering of Soweto and the hearts of those who went to bed hungry each night.”

“Madiba’s faith was rugged. It was grounded in the now while clinging stubbornly to a hope in the not yet,” said Rev. Wright. “He refused to be boxed in to one creed or position of exclusionary religion.”

Rabbi Capers Funnye, who leads the Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation on the city’s Southwest side called Mr. Mandela “a giant in the human family.”

Minister Farrakhan speaks at Chicago State University. Photos: The Final Call

“May his works and his sacrifices for his country and his people be a reminder to all of us of the meaning of love of country and love of people,” said Rabbi Funnye.

Minister Farrakhan called Nelson Mandela “a magnificent human being” and during his comments, which lasted just under 30 minutes, talked about the level of integrity and commitment Mr. Mandela has displayed over his years as a servant of the people.

“Why do we honor the birthday of Nelson Mandela?” asked Minister Farrakhan. “To have your birthday honored by people all over the world is saying something about not your birth but your life that makes your birth significant,” he added.

Minister Farrakhan said no one escapes death, and it is not until death, when one returns to God, the source of life, that historians and others can begin to gather the bits and pieces of one’s life to assign their place in history. As long as Mr. Mandela lives, and the goal is not yet fully achieved, there is no period to his testament and he continues to touch people all over the world, he said.

“My teacher the Honorable Elijah Muhammad taught us that whenever the people are longing for change, nature will produce one from the womb of a woman who is committed and dedicated to service to bring about that change,” said the Minister. “Nelson Mandela is not an ordinary man. He’s an extraordinary human being who in his life weathered many storms.”

Many are aware of Mr. Mandela’s status as a political prisoner under the apartheid government in South Africa, but not much about what led to his imprisonment. He joined the African National Congress in 1944 becoming heavily involved in the group’s youth league and  immediately engaged in resistance against the apartheid policies of the ruling National Party.  

Apartheid was a legalized system of racial segregation in which the White minority ruled over and discriminated against the Black majority.

In 1960, he advocated the establishment of an armed wing of the ANC, which later became known as the Umkhonto we Sizwe. Ultimately, his revolutionary activities were noticed by the government and in 1964 he along with several of his comrades were convicted of sabotage and conspiracy to violently overthrow the South African government.

Mr. Mandela endured harsh conditions as a prisoner for 27 years, 18 of which were spent at Robben Island Prison.  At times, he had no bed or sheets and was forced to sleep on the stone floor of the prisons. One of his sons died in a car accident while he was in prison, another of his sons died in 2005 of an AIDS related illness.

Largely due to the efforts of  his wife at the time, Winnie Madikizela Mandela, Mr. Mandela’s status among the people grew. The African National Congress had been banned since 1960, however, she kept the group and her husband’s vision out in front of the people. The ban on the group was lifted in 1990 coinciding with his release. In an historic vote in 1994, Nelson Mandela became the nation’s first democratically elected president. Ironically, he remained on the U.S. terrorism watch list until 2008.

Reflections on ‘Madiba’

Minister Farrakhan said Mr. Mandela should be commended as a statesman and peacemaker because after successfully vanquishing the Apartheid government and ascending to power on the shoulders of the people, “he could have bathed South Africa in blood” because many were calling for retaliation and retribution directed towards the White Afrikaners.

He did not choose that route. Instead, Mr. Mandela and those with whom he formed the new post-apartheid government became paragons of reconciliation, even establishing a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to effectively start the nation and its people on the path of healing from its wretched past. The government made many promises during negotiations with Mr. Mandela, however many of them have remained unfulfilled, the Minister said.  

Alice Tulelo with her 8-year-old granddaughter wearing an ANC t-shirt.
In 1996, Nelson Mandela received Minister Farrakhan and his delegation in Johannesburg during his World Friendship Tour following the historic Million Man March.

“Nelson Mandela was and is a revolutionary,” said the Minister. “That word sometimes confuses people they think of violence, they think of madness, they think that a revolutionary is a wild-eyed insane person. But this world is in need of a revolution and I don’t mean revolution from the standpoint of bloodshed. I mean revolution from the standpoint of the presence of light, as it strikes our planet at the equator. The energy in the light causes the planet to move.” 

Revolution with the gun is temporary, but revolution of the mind, soul and spirit is permanent, he said. 

“When revolutionaries—true revolutionaries—come into the world they change people’s minds,  they change people’s hearts and they change the destiny of nations. Such a man is Nelson Mandela.”

Although many religious denominations were present for the celebration of Mr. Mandela’s life, the gathering was not without controversy. Rabbi Funnye told The Final Call he was originally supposed to  represent the Chicago Board of Rabbis which, according to their website consists of a group “of 200 rabbis representing the Conservative, Orthodox, Reconstructionist and Reform streams of Jewish life.” However, the board, as well as members of some other religious denominations backed out of the program objecting to the inclusion of Minister Farrakhan. Rabbi Funnye came anyway, sat next to Minister Farrakhan during the event and later, the two men embraced and talked.

“The issue was unfortunately other clerics, not only the Board of Rabbis, but also representatives from the Greek Orthodox Church and other religious entities as well had a particular issue with Minister Farrakhan being on the program,” said Rabbi Capers.

“I recalled for them back in the 90’s when Mr. Mandela first came to Chicago, once he got out of prison, there was an enormous program for him held here. The representatives from the Jewish community were there, Mayor Daley was there,” Rabbi Capers continued, “This man was a featured speaker and everybody stayed to hear the Minister speak, so I thought that if we are not able to communicate together how are we ever going to reach any degree of understanding with each other? Understanding comes through communication,” said Rabbi Capers.

South Africa now

In South Africa, the office of current South African president Jacob Zuma announced a variety of events marking the occasion. Like many African nations, South Africa has their challenges, however, he has worked to maintain unity. In a land of over 50 million people, 80 percent are Black, 9 percent mixed and 9 percent White. Unemployment has remained high in post-apartheid South Africa. A sizeable Black middle class has grown, however poverty has increased, even among Whites. The country struggles as HIV/AIDS ravages many parts.


Ishmael Muhammad said whether it is Nelson Mandela becoming the president in South Africa, or Barack Obama becoming the president of the United States of America, it is important to remain vigilant because the elite ruling class always seeks to maintain control and even when they appear to concede to the demands of the people, they deliver “symbol without substance.”

“The lessons of the life and the legacy of Nelson Mandela can be applied today with the struggle that is in our faces,” Mr. Muhammad told the young students. “The question that we have to ask is, what can we use, what can we adopt, what can we apply of the successful principles that President Mandela applied in order to tear down the walls of apartheid? But don’t go to sleep,” said Ishmael Muhammad. “The question is, have we fallen asleep?”

The students said they enjoyed listening to the different speakers as they discussed aspects of Mr. Mandela’s life, legacy, values, and his battles against injustice and poverty, which continues to grip his beloved country.

Shavon Pettis, a 17-year-old honor roll student at Bronzeville Military Academy, said she enjoyed the presentations, especially discussions dealing with the different strategies the South Africans used in getting rid of apartheid.

“What they were saying is really true, they didn’t need violence, but they needed to take action,” she said.

Her brother, Davon Pettis, also 17, said the message from the panelists to the youth about being peaceful with one another also struck a chord with him.

“You can’t always pick up a weapon to fight, sometimes words are more effective,” said Mr. Pettis “It’s better to say what’s on your mind instead of fighting, so you can change mindsets,” he added.

Serena Harris, 17, attends Percy L. Julian high school. She said she learned about the principles of justice looking at Mr. Mandela’s life. 

“I wanted to ask more questions,” she said.

Charmayne Lewis, 15, attends Hyde Park Academy. She said she did not know a lot about Nelson Mandela before the Mandela Day program.

“I heard about him but I had never really gotten into depth about him, but I learned a lot today,” she said.