Nelson Mandela’s words inspired a generation of activists

Heeten Kalan | 12/13/2013, 6 a.m.
The first time I read the writings of Nelson Mandela, the imprisoned South African leader of the anti-apartheid struggle, was ...
Jamaica Plain resident Heeten Kalan was born in South Africa.

It felt surreal to see and hear a man whose words I once read in utmost secrecy now addressing thousands of well-wishers and admirers. Many of us who fought apartheid had been fueled by both hope for a better future but also anger about the injustice. I was trying to listen for his anger, his need for revenge or even a sense of despair. Instead, his words inspired dignity, faith and hope.

Here stood a man who transcended bitterness to see the potential for greater good in humanity and for a peaceful transition to a democratic South Africa. Mandela used this unique quality to steer a nation from the brink of civil war in the early 1990s and guided South Africa during this tough transition with a combination of sophisticated strategy and humble charm. His leadership style turned his adversaries into partners for peace and progress.

In 1994, I returned to South Africa to vote for the first time and to serve as an election monitor for the African National Congress at a polling booth at the end of the street I grew up on. I assisted the elderly and disabled to the voting booths for the very first time, including my then-56-year-old mother.

Days later, and right before Mandela was to be inaugurated as South Africa’s first democratically-elected president, I walked around the Union Buildings in Pretoria which for decades housed the apartheid regime. People of all races were milling around – a palpable manifestation of Mandela’s vision of South Africa’s future. I remember a conversation that day with a young Afrikaner who told me that while he did not vote for Mandela, he was willing to embrace him as president; a testament to Mandela’s amazing ability to disarm opponents and adversaries without stripping them of their humanity.

Many others have written more eloquently than I about the nearly 20 years that have passed since those elections; April 1994 was a huge milestone for millions of South Africans and their supporters worldwide. I often share Mandela’s words, once considered poison by the apartheid regime, with students of all ages. One particular message embodying both hope and vigilance resonates for our time: that we can overcome oppression and yet have to guard against becoming oppressors. That we should not be silent, nor should we become complacent.

Heeten Kalan, a resident of Jamaica Plain, is the board chair of the South Africa Development Fund and a senior program officer at the New World Foundation.