On this bike ride I stopped outside the South African Embassy, located at 3051 Massachusetts Avenue (MAP) in northwest D.C.’s Embassy Row neighborhood, to see a statue of Nelson Mandela. Mandela was a South African activist and former president of that country who helped bring an end to apartheid, a system of segregation or discrimination based on race, and went on to become a global advocate for human rights and for AIDS awareness and prevention.
Born with the name Rolihlahla into a royal family of the Xhosa-speaking Thembu tribe in the village of Mvezo, Transkei, on July 18, 1918, the name means “to pull a branch off a tree” and “troublemaker.” The man who would come to be know as Nelson, a name given to him at the age of seven by his teacher on his first day of elementary school, grew up in a rural area where he engaged in herding animals. His father passed away when he was 12 years old. Afterwards, wealthy relatives had custody of him, and he attended boarding school. He later attended Fort Hare Missionary College, but was eventually expelled for organizing a strike against the white rule of the college.
A member of the African National Congress party beginning in the 1940s, he was a leader of both peaceful protests and armed resistance against the white minority’s oppressive regime in a racially divided South Africa. His actions landed him in prison for almost three decades and made him the face of the antiapartheid movement both within his country and internationally. While in prison, he was told in 1985 that if he stopped his acts of violence, he would be allowed to go free. He did not agree to this provision and remained incarcerated for another five years. Finally released in 1990, he participated in the eradication of apartheid which culminated in 1994 when he became the first black president of South Africa, forming a multiethnic government to oversee the country’s transition.
After retiring from politics in 1999, he remained a devoted champion for peace and social justice in his own nation and around the world until his death in 2013 at the age of 95.
The statue resembles Mandela’s pose, his right arm extended into a fist above his head, on this day 27 years ago today (1990) when he was released from over 27 years of incarceration. And the statue is in an ideal D.C. location, because it is on the same spot where daily anti-apartheid demonstrations took place, led by Randall Robinson, the noted author and activist, Georgetown professor Eleanor Holmes-Norton, civil rights activist Mary Frances Berry, and former D.C. Congressional Delegate Walter E. Fauntroy, beginning in November of 1984.
“We entered this building nearly 29 years ago,” Robinson said, with the belief that the struggles for justice in the United States and South Africa were inextricably “bound up together.” At one point, Robinson recalled in his remarks, Norton left the meeting to speak with those waiting outside. Then the others announced they were not leaving until the government began to dismantle apartheid and released political prisoners, starting with Mandela.
They did leave, but under arrest and in handcuffs. Their arrests were followed by more than 4,000 others as the protests continued day after day, month after month, until apartheid in South Africa finally ended a decade later, and Mandela became president of that country.