Missing Nelson Mandela

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This is a day I hoped would never come. The loss of Nelson Mandela is impossible to measure.

Mandela, who died Thursday at age 95, is perhaps the most beloved political figure in my lifetime. It didn't matter whether you were liberal, conservative or radical; black or white; man or woman: This man brought people together. And part of his humanity was understanding the role sports could play.

White South African officials portrayed him as a terrorist, but for black South Africans he was their hero. Mandela led the African National Congress (ANC) in the resistance to apartheid, the most racist system of government on the face of the earth in the second half of the 20th century.

During much of his life, the vast majority of South Africans by law could not own a home where they wanted, go to any school they might favor, work where they wanted to or vote. People of color had no rights. And 81 percent of the population was of color -- either African, like Mandela; Coloured (people of mixed ancestry); or Asian, people whose families came as laborers early in the 1900s.

Mandela was called a communist and a radical revolutionary by those who supported the white regime in the 1950s. The ANC sought America's support from the administration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower but none was to be had. This was true with anti-colonial forces all across the continent of Africa and around the world.

During his trial for treason, Mandela uttered what became his most famous quote, striking fear in his captors and inspiring those he wanted to help liberate: "During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people, 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 it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die."

I watched on television as he was led away to prison in 1963. I dreamt that night that someday not only would Mandela be released but also he would become the president of South Africa. Decades, not years, went by as the dream seemed unattainable.

At a particularly low point in the 1970s, I had a conversation with George Houser, my mentor in the anti-apartheid movement. Houser had been involved since the 1940s in various struggles for freedom, including in the civil rights movement in the United States. I asked him when he thought South Africa would become free and Houser said, "I don't think I'll live to see it." Still, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Angola and Guinea-Bissau became free. Then activists working to end unjust and exclusionary governments knew it was possible that the same would happen for South Africa.

We heard stories about the horrible conditions on Robben Island, where Mandela was held for 18 years. Mandela's health status was not known but he was rumored to be ill. When we heard he was finally going to be released, almost three decades after he had been imprisoned, joy swept through communities of conscience all across the globe. But it was impossible to tell what Mandela would be like after so many years in prison. Would he come out hating white people, bitter and angry, seeking revenge in his pursuit of justice?

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