“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.” ~Nelson Mandela.
The rest of the world knows him as Nelson Mandela. We, as South Africans, choose to call him Madiba, his Xhosa clan name. Since I was a young girl growing up in the Daveyton township in Johannesburg’s East Rand, Madiba has always been my hero. He was a leader to all indigenous South Africans long before his story of resilience found its way into history books around the world. The Afrikaner colonial regime sentenced him to a lifetime imprisonment at Robben’s Island – they thought it would curb our dreams, break our spirits. It was supposed to serve as a stern warning: Fighting the system would not be tolerated. Still, other brave men — just like Madiba — chose unrest over suppression and were rewarded with torture and incarceration. Countless others simply disappeared into our memories as their brothers and sisters fought on in their honor. I am a product of this rich legacy.
Apartheid was the law, a way of life. One of my earliest memories as a child is being trained how to not make direct eye contact with certain individuals. The beautiful protest music that shed light on the bitter reality of South Africa was banned and our news channels were filtered. There were many efforts to keep us ignorant and uninformed, but we refused to be silenced. We continued to sing songs for our Madiba and it was through these songs that the details of our harsh existence were preserved. These songs were the soundtrack to my childhood. Through lyrics of strength and pain, I began to understand the plight of native South Africans under a segregated system of oppression — first with the British, then with the Dutch.
Madiba was our hope for a change, for a better way of life. He spent almost half his life in darkness so that we could be brought into the light. When that tearful and joyful day came on the 11th of February in 1990, we were able to witness this amazing revolutionary reemerge in freedom, from where he had entered in chains. His glorious emancipation marked our own. The excitement among the people was electrifying! A new era had dawned and you could feel the anticipation in the streets. Madiba became our first black president. Our first Black president. Under his patient leadership, the transition from an apartheid government to a democratic one was peaceful and reconstructive. He became a beacon, a symbol, somehow more than a man; yet he remained all too human. A new world we knew nothing about lay ahead, but we knew as our trusted father figure, Madiba would lead us. And, lead us he did.
He fought inequality; he fought poverty; he fought violence. The world watched as we rose from a racially segregated society and evolved into a pluralistic one. South Africa became more than a land of natural resources, but a land of culture and promise. After his five years in office, his work still wasn’t done. He turned his attention to humanitarian efforts, specifically the spread of HIV/AIDS that was devastating our entire continent.
Apartheid ended in the mid ’90’s, but much like the vestige of slavery in the United States, its remnants still haunt South Africans. We are just now learning our worth and potential as black South Africans, as Africans. We are now working to expand our infrastructure and improve the quality of life throughout our homeland. Still, it is imperative that we value and preserve our indigenous histories and tribes. So much lies ahead and we embrace the continued progression.
Two years ago, I was given the opportunity to perform at Madiba’s 92nd birthday party where I sang his favorite Labi Siffre’s tune Something Inside (So Strong) with the Soweto Spiritual Singer’s Choir. It has been my most memorable performance to date and a once-in-a-lifetime experience for a young girl from the East Rand, singing songs in his honor before I fully understood the depth of the lyrics. Now, I do.
I am proud to be a part of the Nelson Mandela Children Foundation, an organizational movement that honors Mandela’s life work and continues it by raising awareness and providing on-the-ground based solutions. Our new non-profit fashion line, 46664 Clothing takes it’s appellation from the prison number he was assigned on Robben’s Island, while all proceeds are donated to charitable relief efforts in South Africa like libraries and schools.
Today is Madiba’s 94th birthday and we celebrate him globally with “Mandela Day.” I pray the world continues to honor our beloved father and remember his contributions as Africa continues to evolve. Our democracy is young but I have so much hope for our future.
Written by Lira.
Lira is a South African vocalist and an award winning singer/song writer. In her homeland where her first four albums have all achieved multi-platinum status, Lira is widely regarded as a contemporary artist. Despite the fact that her early life was shaped by the harsh realities of South Africa’s apartheid system, Lira’s drive to create was strong enough to transcend her social circumstances.