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Nelson Mandela: Beloved in Boston

Brian Wright O’Connor | 12/11/2013, 11:18 a.m.
Nelson Mandela greets supporters upon his arrival at Logan Airport. (behind) Governor Michael Dukakis, Mayor Raymond Flynn, U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy, state Rep. Shirley Owens-Hicks, Kitty Dukakis. Photo by Don West

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Nelson Mandela pauses to chat with City Councilor Charles Yancey during his arrival at Logan Airport in 1990.

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela achieved mythical status through the astonishing feat of removing the chains of bondage from both the oppressed and the oppressor.

The outpouring of love and grief over his death last week at age 95 was a testament to the power of his redemptive life and a stark reminder that men of such stature rarely walk the earth.

Shut away in prison for 27 years, the man who was born a Xhosa prince became a global symbol of the freedom movement in South Africa though few had ever met him or could even say what he looked like after nearly three decades behind bars.

What struck the world like a thunderbolt after his release from prison in 1990 was his gospel-like message of forgiveness and reconciliation. The fervor of his dedication to a peaceful transition caused the edifice of apartheid to crumble.

The weapons of love and tolerance multiplied the moral force of Mandela’s resurrection from his prison exile and led to a negotiated end to apartheid. His approach achieved what the armed struggle had not — the end of the second-class citizenship that had denied over 24 million black South Africans the right to vote, own property, sign contracts, speak freely and assemble openly. In short, to breathe the air of freedom.

As the shackles fell to the ground, Mandela also lifted a moral burden from the white minority by praising many of his jailers for their kindness, preserving a place in government for the party of apartheid, and affirming the Afrikaners culture. He famously donned the jersey of the national rugby team, the Springboks, and cheered on the multi-racial national side to victory in rugby’s world championship over the “All Blacks” of New Zealand.

Watching Mandela bask in the chants of “Nelson! Nelson!” was like seeing Christ with a strategic plan, a saintly head of state methodically breaking down every barrier of resistance until, like the Roman centurion at the Cross, the legionnaires of apartheid lay down their swords and worshipped the man they would crucify.

Reaching out to Afrikaners through their beloved rugby was balanced by his support of bringing the favored sport of black townships, soccer, to South Africa for the 2010 World Cup.

His Truth and Reconciliation Commission provided the masterstroke of burying the hatchet of enmity, though economic parity would prove harder to achieve.

Long before pulling off the miracle of peaceful change, the African National Congress leader had a broad base of political and popular support in Boston.

Harvard Yard was ground zero of the national campaign to divest university funds from companies doing business in South Africa, hosting huge rallies and debates over the responsibility of corporate and academic America to cut the economic legs out from under injustice.

Twenty years before Mandela took his long walk to freedom, a Polaroid employee named Caroline Hunter and her husband Ken Williams raised objections to the company producing the passbooks that controlled the movements of the black majority in South Africa. Their organized protests led the Boston company to drop the contract and spurred similar divestment activities around the country.