Hugh Evans Pens Mandela homage in an appreciation piece

By Oluthando Keteyi - 13 July 2018Views : 255

By Hugh Evans CEO of Global Citizen

When I was nineteen years old, I travelled to the Valley of a Thousand Hills in South Africa and one evening pitched a tent on the banks of the Ntshongweni Dam.

I had come to South Africa a year earlier after Nelson Mandela spoke in my hometown of Melbourne, Australia—a speech I found so inspiring that I had to learn about his country first-hand. I worked for a year at a foster care centre for children who had been orphaned due to AIDS and violence, before I travelled to Ntshongweni with Mandela on my mind.

I had just finished his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom, and I spent the weekend writing him a letter beneath the open sky.

I have been thinking recently about that letter—not just because July 18th marks what would have been Mandela’s hundredth birthday - also because his example feels more necessary than ever. I have spent my life working to fight extreme poverty and injustice around the globe, but in recent weeks it has been hard to maintain optimism.

As news around the world becomes direr, millions of people are asking themselves how they can resist policies, which are so contrary to their own values.

There is no greater embodiment of resistance than Mandela, but his lessons are not as simple as many people believe. Most people remember Mandela the international statesman, an almost Buddha-like font of patience and forgiveness. They marvel at his lack of bitterness after 27 years in prison and imagine him suffering in dignity, as though he knew all along that his cause would ultimately prevail.

There is some truth to this image, but it sometimes obscures how radical and clever Mandela was in fighting the apartheid system.

He originally employed a Gandhian model of nonviolent civil disobedience, but he adopted more confrontational tactics after the South African government brutally cracked down. He organized a campaign of sabotage against state infrastructure and co-founded a militarized wing of the African National Congress after South African police killed 69 people in the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre.

“It would be unrealistic and wrong for African leaders to continue preaching peace and non-violence at a time when the government met our peaceful demands with force,” Mandela said in 1964.

That statement would help land Mandela in prison, where he continued his resistance. He protested the cruelty of the guards and often wound up in solitary confinement. He secretly wrote his autobiography in his cell and took a job in the prison garden, where he could smuggle out the pages.

Some of Mandela’s tactics would be too extreme in the present political context—and yet they are a reminder that resistance does not flow from a saintly demeanour but rather is cobbled together from hard work, risk, sacrifice, adaptability, and commitment. To resist is to suffer setbacks without losing resolve, and to know that rewards may not come for many years if they ever come at all.

As Global Citizens, we mustn't give up on Mandela's global vision of peaceful resistance. America is the land of freedom and social progress and we must never stop pressuring our representatives and leaders to govern with grace and wisdom. It will be our generation that will determine whether America holds ground on its values, or lets it all slip away.

I don’t know if Mandela ever received the letter I wrote. People said he read every letter he received, but I left mine in a mailbox outside a shuttered supermarket, and I’ve always suspected it never reached Madiba.

I did have the chance, years later, to befriend his grandson Kweku. It was Kweku who helped open my eyes to the natural beauty of South Africa. And it was Kweku who encouraged us to stage the Global Citizen Festival in Johannesburg in December this year.

The Festival will be the culmination of Global Citizen’s Mandela 100 campaign, which seeks to mobilize $1 billion in commitments towards ending extreme poverty. The push comes at a time of rising nationalism across the globe, when many of the divisions that Mandela sought to bridge are widening once again.

It is a stark reminder that we must do more than simply applaud Mandela’s legacy in order to pay him tribute. His “Long Walk to Freedom” did not end with his death in 2013. He simply started the path—and it is our responsibility to continue blazing its trail.