My Encounter with Nelson Mandela
Olivia Shekou, 12
Just last week, I flew to New York to visit my aunt, a lawyer for the United Nations who speaks three official languages of the United Nations. She allowed me access to the United Nations’ library for the day while she was working on an international human rights case. So, there I was, sitting at an ornate wooden desk at the lavishly decorated United Nations library. The soft glow of the tabletop candelabra illuminated the book that sat right at my fingertips. I was surprised to discover it was a copy of Laaren Brown and Lenny Hort's biography of Nelson Mandela.
As I questioned whether I was dreaming or awake, I reached for the biography to find out whether it was tangible or just an illusion. As soon as I reached for it, Nelson Mandela suddenly stepped out of the biography like a holographic Star Wars action figure. The sixty-year-old man’s brown eyes and chocolate skin gently framed his white hair. When he smiled at me, I noticed three creases on his forehead and around each eye. I gaped in awe, unable to believe what I was seeing. Was this really him or was I hallucinating? He reassured me that he wasn't a holographic transmission but that he had time-traveled from South Africa from the year 1980. But how was this possible? Nelson Mandela was born on July 18, 1918 in the village of Mvezo in the Eastern Cape of South Africa. Had he been alive today, he would be 102 years old! He passed away at age 95 in December of 2013 and since then, the United Nations commemorates his birthday as the Nelson Mandela International Day, celebrated each year on July 18th in his honor.
But there he was standing before me, cerebral-looking yet casually dressed, while smiling and radiating a warm peaceful glow. He was wearing a colorful shirt, matching shorts, and looked as if he had just come back from a tropical vacation. He reminded me of my grandfather, with his slightly hunched posture and his friendly handshake. I looked Nelson Mandela in the eye and he returned my gaze. Diverting my gaze to his feet, I noticed his bright blue flip flops. Had he just come from a peace rally in a tropical destination? Who exactly was this man?
Nelson Mandela lived a long purposeful life combatting apartheid and racial segregation in South Africa. His 40-year battle against segregation began in Johannesburg, where he faced backlash from the government for protesting against apartheid laws that segregated the Black citizens of South Africa. Nelson Mandela was known for his peaceful protests against apartheid through an organization called the African National Congress. The government banned his organization, forcing him to create a secret army called “Spear of the Nation,” and he became South Africa’s most wanted fugitive. He was hunted down by the police and had to hide and disguise himself. In 1962, Nelson Mandela was arrested and sentenced to life in prison on the brutal Robben Island for conspiring to overthrow South Africa’s government.
Nelson Mandela overcame many hardships while confined to a small cell without a bed or plumbing, all the while being subjected to hard labor in a quarry. During his time at Robben Island, he was only allowed one visitor a year and was restricted from writing letters more than once every few months. However, he stayed committed to stopping apartheid by leading protests from within prison while also demanding better conditions for inmates. Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in prison. In 1990, he was finally pardoned from prison and, by 1994, all Black people in South Africa were able to vote for the first time. He is considered one of the most significant political figures today because of his efforts to end racism and apartheid. And here I was looking right at him with my mouth gaping wide.
I knew of Nelson Mandela as a peaceful visionary who could see the big picture as well as the end goal of what he was fighting for. He was also forgiving and showed the world what forgiveness looks like. I asked him about his time in prison and how it felt to be treated as a criminal for fighting against racism and apartheid. “As I walked out of the prison door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison,” he said. Nelson Mandela was a freedom fighter to his core, fighting for the freedom and democratic rights of Black citizens of South Africa. In doing so, he had to let go of his own anger toward his wrongdoers in order to stand for his cause. He didn’t seek revenge or self-glory and didn’t hold on to anger. He used nonviolent protests against the South African government and its racist policies, setting the ultimate example of a nonviolent civil rights activist.
Nelson Mandela was also a fearless leader. Leaders everywhere should study him, his conviction to fairness and his ability to peacefully protest against the injustices of apartheid. He had all the characteristics of a great leader that helped shape a more democratic South Africa. Even from prison, he never accepted failure or defeat. For this reason, he is one of the most significant and impactful political activists of our recent past. In honor of Nelson Mandela’s memory, Mr. Ban, Chief of the United Nations, said that “Through his extraordinary life, Mr. Mandela showed that tyranny and oppression never have the last word. That is the heritage of hope he bestowed upon every one of us.”
“What's going on and why are you here?” I inquired.
“Well, when you opened the biography of me, you brought back my 62-year-old self who had lived out eighteen years in prison. I had a bad feeling about the year 2020 and felt that the American people needed me. Plus, I needed a break from prison! Why don't you fill me in on what’s been happening in 2020-21?” he asked. I told him about our current events, from the disturbing death of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May 2020 to our 2020 presidential election results to the ongoing pandemic with its new variants in 2021. What caught his interest the most was that our presidential election results were challenged.
“If I'm not mistaken, it seems that America has never been more divided,” said Nelson Mandela. I replied, “Yes, for so many years Americans have fought over who can vote. The 14th, 19th and 26th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution have helped shape our democracy by giving equal protection and the right to vote to Americans of every race, gender and our young adults of ages 18-21. But the 2020 election was truly a fight over how to vote, whether voting in person or by mail-in ballot and whether one is considered a “lesser” vote. By challenging mail-in votes, aren’t we questioning the fabric of our democracy and our right as Americans to have a say in our election?”
The two of us spent the night chatting away like old friends. I observed his mannerisms; whenever a sensitive topic was brought up, he sat poised and contemplative, and answered in a manner dedicated to serve humanity.
“This is a challenging time for Americans. What do you aim to accomplish and how can I help you?” he asked thoughtfully.
I replied, “In the same way you fought for the rights of South Africans, I feel the urge to stop the fear and intimidation of having to vote a certain way for one’s vote to count. Similar to how the Constitution and its Amendments protect the voting rights of every race, gender and the 18 and over age group, I think the Constitution should also protect the American people’s right to vote in whatever way they choose—in-person or by mail, without fear that their vote would be counted as any less of a vote.
Nelson Mandela suggested we approach the Supreme Court to ask for protection of our freedom to choose how we cast our ballots. In our current pandemic, many American citizens have acted responsibly by not showing up at voting booths to vote in-person and choosing to mail in their ballots. It is our right to choose how to vote and how best we can do so. Nelson Mandela reminded me to never stop fighting for justice, especially with so much at stake. Although the Supreme Court hears cases that are sent up from the lower courts, any challenge to our democracy is worthy of being taken up to the highest court of our nation.
“Democracy and freedom are worth fighting for and deserve to make the docket,” Nelson Mandela said with conviction. With this, we both sighed in relief and our conversation suddenly got more personal. I asked him about his life.
“How did you find the motivation to carry on with your dreams after being imprisoned twice?” I asked.
He shifted uncomfortably and said, “I separated from my wife and children, and from my mother and sisters, to live as an outlaw in my own country. I had to leave my job and live in poverty and misery to fight apartheid, slowly but surely, until victory was won. I made my choice not to surrender. Only through hardship and sacrifice can freedom be won. I will continue to fight for freedom as long as I live and wherever I land. What are your aspirations?”
“As you know, apartheid in South Africa cost South Africans their freedom and equality under white minority rule from 1948-1994. You helped bring awareness through peaceful protests and put an end to apartheid with your persistence and determination. I believe that powerful words and peaceful protest through writing can resonate through decades. I like to write and am determined to make a difference through my writing,” I said. Nelson Mandela was beaming and with a twinkle in his eyes, said, “That is a very good idea; let's start now." So, like college students crash studying for an important exam, we spent the night brainstorming and writing.
“Whether in the past or present, or should we meet again in the future, we know that time is no barrier in our quest for freedom and equality,” Nelson Mandela said. I looked up and the candle flame that had been extinguished hours ago was now burning bright. With the mention of “Time,” the candle had suddenly lit up as if cueing Nelson Mandela back to safe passage through his biography. His words “Time is no barrier” echoed in my mind and were then replaced with these last poetic words of his: “The days are passing by, the seasons are turning and yet the past, present and future merge together. But here dawns a new era with a new set of challenges and a continuing fight for freedom.” Suddenly, the atmosphere began to change. Winds outside the library intensified and howled. The candelabra began to flicker. Books began cascading down the shelves. As soon as it had started, it all came to an abrupt stop. I then picked up his biography, or what I thought was his biography, and handed it over to Nelson Mandela. He gave me one last stare, then disappeared into the pages of the book. The past and present blurred together. The next thing I knew, my aunt was jostling my shoulder and asking me “what took you so long?”