you know, there are very few days that one can look back at and say "I remember that day, I know exactly where I was when that happened"
For me, one of those days was 23 years and almost 4 months ago -- The day Nelson Mandela stepped out of prison and addressed the world. The cliche "the whole world is watching" has rarely been more true.
News of his release came a little more than a week earlier, and that afternoon I sat with a group of friends, glued to the radio, listening to the words of a man we had all grown to admire; a man that captured my generation's imagination and spurred so many of us into political action.
Apartheid could not hold on much longer, you could feel the winds of change. Together, we had all changed the world.
Today, as news is spreading around the world that Mandela's health is failing, I'm filled with a sorrow that is as heavy as the joy of Feb 11th 1990 was light and joyful. But, I'm also filled with awe. It's amazing that he did not die in prison; it's amazing that he lived this long, that he was able to play such an important role in defining a new future for South Africa. A lesson that is so relevant to other struggles today.
To quote some of his speech from that day:
"I greet you all in the name of peace, democracy and freedom for all.
I stand here before you not as a prophet but as a humble servant of you, the people. Your tireless and heroic sacrifices have made it possible for me to be here today. I therefore place the remaining years of my life in your hands.
On this day of my release, I extend my sincere and warmest gratitude to the millions of my compatriots and those in every corner of the globe who have campaigned tirelessly for my release.
I send special greetings to the people of Cape Town, this city which has been my home for three decades. Your mass marches and other forms of struggle have served as a constant source of strength to all political prisoners....
Our resort to the armed struggle in 1960 with the formation of the military wing of the ANC, Umkhonto we Sizwe, was a purely defensive action against the violence of apartheid. The factors which necessitated the armed struggle still exist today. We have no option but to continue. We express the hope that a climate conducive to a negotiated settlement will be created soon so that there may no longer be the need for the armed struggle...
We have waited too long for our freedom. We can no longer wait. Now is the time to intensify the struggle on all fronts. To relax our efforts now would be a mistake which generations to come will not be able to forgive. The sight of freedom looming on the horizon should encourage us to redouble our efforts.
It is only through disciplined mass action that our victory can be assured. We call on our white compatriots to join us in the shaping of a new South Africa. The freedom movement is a political home for you too. We call on the international community to continue the campaign to isolate the apartheid regime. To lift sanctions now would be to run the risk of aborting the process towards the complete eradication of apartheid.
Our march to freedom is irreversible. We must not allow fear to stand in our way. Universal suffrage on a common voters' role in a united democratic and non-racial South Africa is the only way to peace and racial harmony.
In conclusion I wish to quote my own words during my trial in 1964. They are true today as they were then:
'I have fought against white domination and I have fought against black domination. 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.'"