The death last week of Nelson Mandela, the leader of the successful struggle to end apartheid and South Africa’s first democratically-elected president, has led to a worldwide outpouring of sorrow, respect and remembrance for a man whom many considered one of history’s great heroes — a liberator of his countrymen, exemplar of forgiveness toward his oppressors and champion of human dignity.
After South Africa’s president, Jacob Zuma, announced Mandela’s death last Thursday, reports poured in from Johannesburg, Brooklyn, and many other places around the globe of vigils mourning Mandela’s passing. In Hempstead, local officials gathered Friday afternoon at Hempstead High School for a quickly-arranged program celebrating Mandela’s legacy. Speaking to hundreds of students in the school’s auditorium, several gave speeches citing Mandela as an inspiration to fight for justice and serve one’s community.
Former Hempstead Mayor James Garner, who met Mandela multiple times in New York and South Africa and in 2002 was a U.S. delegate to the United Nation’s World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, unfurled onstage a South African flag that he said Mandela gave him. The vigil also included the Hempstead High Chorale singing the South African hymn “Siyahamba,” the Rev. Joe Brown of Hempstead’s Faith Baptist Church Cathedral singing Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come,” and the Hempstead High Concert Band performing “We Shall Overcome.”
After the vigil Garner said he found it “incredible” to talk to Mandela and described him as “very nice in person.” Garner also recounted visiting Mandela’s Robben Island prison cell and the Island’s limestone quarry, gaining a first-hand sense of how inhospitable both were.
Millions who never got to meet Mandela have also in recent days expressed admiration for the South African leader.
“The world is grieving the loss of more than just a leader,” State Assemblywoman Michaelle Solages told the Herald. “We are grieving the loss of an inspiration. Nelson Mandela inspired not only his country, but the world to challenge oppression, fight injustice and make the dream of equality for all a reality. Although in this moment we mourn Mandela’s death, we must try to find comfort in the memory of [his] life and continue to be inspired by his legacy.”
County Legislator Carrie Solages said Mandela’s policies and virtues ought to be carried out today.
““Nelson Mandela was an inspiration to the world,” he said. “His tenacity to end apartheid and bring unity to his country is a legacy that we should desire to continue. He has taught us to focus on working together to achieve our goals instead of focusing on our differences.”
Kevan Abrahams, the Democratic minority leader of the Nassau County Legislature, called Mandela an “icon to not just the people of South Africa but to this world.”
“You could pretty much look at [Mandela’s] life as a testament of perseverance and leadership and being able to build bridges,” Abrahams said. “And I think from that standpoint he’s always been somebody that I personally thought of and recognized as a tremendous leader and as a strong role model, and I think most people believe that to be the case too.”
Dorothy Goosby, who brought a successful federal civil rights lawsuit to change the Town of Hempstead’s districting system and then became the first African-American to win election to the Town Board, said Mandela’s push for inclusive democracy inspired her to pursue a life of politics in America.
“I don’t know anyone who withstood all of the agony and the pain that [Mandela] went through, but yet he came out victorious,” Goosby said. “It did not make him an evil man, it made him want to unite people and make people grow.”
Zahid Syed, chairman of the Nassau County Commission on Human Rights, said Mandela “gave a lesson to everyone that tolerance is the most important thing.”
“Not to fight back with people and just with your kindness and humbleness you can make those people friends,” Syed summarized. He ranked Mandela in moral stature among Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.
“Like Mahtma Gandhi and Dr. King, and after that we have Nelson Mandela,” Syed said. “And now I don’t know how long it will take to have another … leader like that. These leaders are born in centuries.”
Hempstead attorney Fred Brewington said Mandela’s pursuit of civil rights for all inspired his own career.
“While we mourn his passing, we must celebrate the gift that he was to world affairs — changing a vicious cycle of segregation and apartheid into a free and united country shows what a person engaged in the struggle for justice can achieve,” Brewington said.
Dr. Grant Saff, a white South African who grew up just four miles east of Robben Island in Cape Town and is today a geography professor and chairman of the Department of Global Studies and Geography at Hofstra University, recalled a euphoric “spirit of change” that pervaded South Africa at the time of Mandela’s release from prison.
“It really was a lifting of a mystery curtain when he emerged [from prison in 1990] and he did all the right things,” Saff said. It was the first time he and many other South Africans had seen Mandela’s face — newspapers nationwide had been prohibited from publishing his image for nearly 30 years.
Saff, a student studying at the University of Cape Town in the 1980s, noted how during Mandela’s imprisonment his campus turned into a “polarizing environment,” in which classmates were arrested for mounting anti-white administration demonstrations.
“It was the most depressing time in South African history,” Saff said, “but it was also a time of enormous energy and organization in society.”
In judging Mandela’s historical importance, Saff said people must remember there were two sides to his legacy: he was a symbolic figure who lifted his people out of racial oppression, but he also was a flawed human being who was not always successful when it came to governing. Nevertheless, Saff gave greater weight to the first legacy.
“[Mandela] was a very seminal figure because he was able to hold it together,” Saff said. “He was part of a generation which put his struggle and need for democracy ahead of their own enrichment and personal interest.”
Robby Schwach, a retired NYPD lieutenant who as a rookie cop in June 1990 worked security for Mandela’s ticker-tape parade in New York, recalled trying to convince some colleagues on the police force why Mandela deserved this reception. (Full disclosure: Robby is the son of Herald editor Howard Schwach.)
“Although I wasn’t in line with some of his politics and some of the personal decisions he had made in his life, I had a lot of respect for his time in prison as a dissenter, protesting a system that was clearly immoral,” Schwach said. “The vehicle carrying Mr. Mandela stopped near where I was assigned, and he seemed to take a special interest in waving [to] and thanking the police officers, which I thought was pretty incredible, considering the way he was treated by law enforcement in his own country.”