International dignitaries and leading civil rights activists gathered at the South African embassy for the unveiling of a statue of Nelson Mandela in front of the embassy’s newly renovated building on Massachusetts Ave. in Northwest D.C.
The 9-foot, bronze-plated statue was designed by a South African sculptor Jean Doyle and modeled after images of the anti-apartheid leader leaving prison in 1990 after 27 years of incarceration.
“Today is sort of a ‘world day’ where you can acknowledge the role that the leader has played both on behalf of his own country and on behalf of the world,” Bill Lucy, president emeritus of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, said in an interview before Saturday’s unveiling.
Like many in the crowd Saturday, Lucy was an active participant in the anti-apartheid movement in the United States. At the time, almost three decades ago, the South African embassy in Washington was a focal point for protests against the continuation of the apartheid system.
“It is compelling and appropriate that on this very spot where our campaign began, where thousands of Americans were arrested protesting against apartheid and all of its associated social crimes, that a statue of Nelson Mandela, the man who inspired the global community to action, will stand,” Randall Robinson said during the ceremony. Robinson was arrested at the embassy during the protests years ago and founded TransAfrica, one of the largest U.S.- Africa foreign policy advocacy organizations.
Several members of the Congressional Black Caucus were present at the ceremony as well. They spoke of their personal experiences during the anti-apartheid movement across the country and their efforts to pressure the American government to divest assets in South Africa during apartheid.
“We didn’t want to be released,” Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., said during the ceremony, recounting her arrest during demonstrations in California. “We wanted to be jailed like Nelson Mandela. We wanted to show courage.”
“For me to here today at the unveiling of the statue of Nelson Mandela not only inspires me to be a better person but to have more courage. To know that to struggle is to win,” she said in an interview after the event.
South African leaders present thanked the American protesters too. “You took on the struggle as your own,” South African International Relations Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, said before the unveiling. “Your struggle for our freedom was not in vain. You can see the progress we are making because you were there.”
The morning was celebratory and cheerful with performances by the U.S. Army Brass Quartet and South African drummers, traditional, colorful South African dresses, and the frequent sound of ululations from the crowd – a high pitched, trilling cheer common on the African continent.
“It’s really just wonderful to celebrate someone while they’re still alive,” Current President TransAfrica Nicole Lee, said.
South Africa – and the world – have been closely monitoring Mandela’s health recently after the former South African president, now 95 years old, was repeatedly hospitalized for lung infections earlier this year. But Zindzi Mandela, Mandela’s youngest daughter, reassured the crowd that her father is alright for now.
“This man is a fighter. He is not going anywhere soon,” she said. “He is determined to be with us. As you can see with his fist raised up,” Zindzi Mandela continued, referring to the new statue. As the ceremony progressed the statue seemed determined to shed its colorful cloak and unveil itself with the wind.
Dr. Rajiv Shah, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), said he hoped the new statue would stir the next generation of leaders. “I just hope that everyone who gets the chance to learn about President Mandela, drive by this statue, and see what’s happening is inspired. Inspired to make a world that’s more just,” he said.
Shah said seeing the former president speak as a child in Detroit helped inspire his own commitment to civil service. He announced during the ceremony that USAID would be making a donation to the Nelson Mandela Children’s Hospital, which is set to open in Johannesburg in 2015.