On July 18 of every year since 2009, South Africans and many other African nationals take out time to observe Nelson Mandela Day. The day coincides with the birthday of the iconic former South African President and anti-apartheid crusader whom it commemorates.
Nelson Mandela Day celebrates the life and values of a global icon, a man who spent his life championing the cause of personal liberty, preaching equality, and advocating the power we have in our shared humanity. Today his name is synonymous with the anti-apartheid struggle and invariably evokes memories of one man’s fight to positively change his immediate society and the world at large.
Arrested in 1962 by the white minority apartheid government for demanding that all South Africans irrespective of their race or the colour of their skin must be treated equally, Mandela went on to spend 27 years in prison — most of it in near-solitary confinement — before his release in 1990. While in prison, he suffered years of physical and psychological abuse, Despite the huge sufferings he and other black South Africans experienced at the hands of the apartheid regime, Mandela went on to preside over a government that espoused reconciliation over retribution, and tolerance over bigotry.
New Traditions for Nelson Mandela Day
Mandela succeeded remarkably well in mending the psyche of a much fractured nation and leading his people by the hand into a new culture of forgiveness and clemency. The people of South Africa have today largely moved away from the dark history of apartheid and have become something of beacon of multiracial harmony to the rest of the world.
For South Africans, July 18 is neither a holiday nor a festival, but it is nevertheless a grand affair. On that day, South Africans call to mind the fact that Nelson Mandela spent an impressive 67 years out of his total 95 years on earth offering selfless service to humanity. People everywhere can observe the day simply by spending 67 minutes of their time on that day volunteering in any activity of their choice to demonstrate goodwill and solidarity for our common humanity.
In South Africa and other parts of Africa, observers of the day typically give their time cleaning public places, babysitting in orphanages, painting school buildings or generally volunteering in acts of kindness around the country. Public figures and celebrities typically take the lead in demonstrating why we all need each other to create a peaceful and flourishing world of our dreams.
On the inauguration of the very first Mandela Day, Nelson Mandela said that he would be “honoured if such a day can serve to bring together people around the world to fight poverty and promote peace and reconciliation.”
The United States Needs Forgiveness and Reconciliation
Although Nelson Mandela Day has officially been declared an international day by no less a body than the United Nations, the holiday has a relatively recent history. Celebrations and activities marking it began just six years ago after the UN declared it an international day in 2009. So it is easy to see why observance of the day hasn’t yet caught on with Americans; just like many other non-South Africans around the world, they do not necessarily have the day marked on their calendars.
This year’s Nelson Mandela Day may have come and gone, but America is in dire need of such a day, set aside to promote kindness, compassion, and our shared humanity, that many Americans could do well to belatedly observe and take part in activities marking the day.
Perhaps more than any other country in the world, at least at the moment, the United States needs to assimilate the ideals of Nelson Mandela; its citizens need to embrace his commitment to forgiveness and reconciliation. In his own words, Mandela wished his day could achieve three main objectives: ending poverty, promoting peace, and lastly, bringing about genuine reconciliation.
In recent weeks, America, especially the African American community, has been rocked by a worsening scenario of racial tension characterised by multiple cases of police brutality targeting the African Americans and seemingly retaliatory acts of violence from elements within their community.
Americans from opposite sides of the divide need to come together and dialogue. They need to talk about the things that matter to them, but even more than that, the country needs genuine reconciliation. However, there can be no reconciliation without forgiveness. There can be no peace without justice, and an end to poverty would not come without opening up opportunities to disadvantaged people and minority groups.
But Americans (Black or White), self-indulged and coddled as they are, can be a testy bunch, and they may not completely take to the idea of celebrating a day named after a non-American man, however great he may be. That in itself need not be a problem, though, as they can choose to rename the day or at least settle for any day of their liking to demonstrate in 67 minutes how much they love their fellow American(s) who may not share a similar political view, skin colour, or religious affiliation.
As improbable or even farcical as it may sound, in observance of a belated Mandela day, the Republicans can try to spend 67 minutes holding hands and waving flags with their fellow Democrats. Members of the National Rifle Association would do well to spend 67 minutes visiting the parents and families of victims of gun violence. The organizers of the Black Lives Matter movement could as well hold a 67-minute parley with the spouses/families of slain police officers. Again, all of that may sound improbable, but it is in no way impossible.
The following excerpts from these two South African stories as narrated by Archbishop Desmond Tutu give an idea of just how Americans may begin their journey of forgiveness and reconciliation.
There was a Mrs. Savage who was injured in a hand-grenade attack by one of the liberation movements. She was so badly injured that her children bathed her, clothed her, and fed her. She could not go through a security checkpoint at the airport because she still had shrapnel in her and all sorts of alarms would have been set off. She told us [at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission] that she would like to meet the perpetrator — she, a white woman, and he almost certainly, a black perpetrator, in the spirit of forgiveness. She would like to forgive him and then extraordinarily she added, “And I hope he forgives me.” Now that is almost mind-boggling.
The daughter of one of four African National Congress activists, whom the police ambushed and then killed gruesomely — their mutilated bodies were found in their burnt-out car — came to tell her story. She said the police were still harassing her mother and her children, even after their father had died. When she finished, I asked her whether she would be able to forgive those who had done this. We were meeting in a city hall packed to the rafters. You could hear the proverbial pin drop, as she replied, “We would like to forgive. We just want to know whom to forgive.”