"I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die." - Mandela
I don't think it's ever happened to me before that the passing of someone whom I've never met, moves me beyond the point of respectfully acknowledging a sad loss, to a place where I physically feel my sorrow; but when I heard about the death of Nelson Mandela last night, I cried.
It wasn't until my early teens that I started to get a proper idea of Nelson Mandela and why he was so important, and even now as an adult, I recognise that I don't know nearly as much about him and the history of his country as I want to. However, I do know that the levels of racial injustice that he fought against, were the kind that I, a Black female born in Britain in the mid-eighties, struggle to imagine.
When I first learned what Apartheid was I remember being shocked, and frustrated that no one had told me sooner. Even now, when I see various footage, notably filmed in colour, it stirs something in me to realise just how recently these events occurred.
Why was this never spoken about while I was at school?
As I watched the footage, and I listened to the stories of his life, his fight for justice, his dignified stance against injustice, how he went from prisoner to President; I had so many thoughts. I fumbled over my words as I tried to engage with others reacting to the news on twitter, and eventually I just had to take a minute and let the tears roll.
After 27yrs, Mandela was released from prison in 1990!!!!
And in 1994 he became the first Black President of South Africa.
(I wish that were a typo but it's not, so excuse me for the following outburst but "FFS!")
The older I get the more I realise that in many ways, I grew up in quite a cosy, naieve little bubble, unaware of just how real racism could really get.
I remember listening to LBC 97.3fm a couple years ago when a Mixed Race South African lady called up and spoke about something called the 'pencil test' and said that her sister had to take this test, which involved a pencil being placed in the hair as some kind of ethnicity gauge. If her hair was thick enough to hold the pencil it essentially meant she was to be considered more black than white; a label that would undoubtedly change her entire life experience. I don't know when this was, and I can't verify it's truth but it was definitely something that stuck with me when I heard it.Such insane divisions are hard for me to conceive, or maybe I'm just too afraid to try.
Some of you may have seen my Afro Comb in the Origins of the Afro Comb Exhibition this year. During the preparation stages, the Curator Dr Sally-Ann Ashton asked me what I thought the relevance of the fist was. I told her that I didn't know for sure, but that I'd always associated it with Nelson Mandela being freed. I gave an embarrassed kind of giggle when I said it because I was ashamed to not know for sure. I now know that the first patent for the black fisted afro comb was in 1972 in America, yet I'm actually proud to say that I will probably always associate my fisted Afro comb with visions of Mandela's raised fist, but also the overall continued perseverance of a people throughout history and across the globe.
When I think of Mandela I'm not only moved by his courage and dignity, but also by his exemplary ability to forgive, and encourage people to live in love and unity. It saddens me to think what the world would be like were it not for people like Mandela and for that reason I hold him up as more than an inspiration, but a real life hero.