Tribute to Madiba by Hope Lewis: A Smile that Called for Transformation

This blog post was written by Northeastern University School of Law Professor Hope Lewis, who co-founded the law school’s Program on Human Rights and the Global Economy, for the IntLawGrrls blog.

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 needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.—Nelson R. Mandela, 1964

Madiba is at peace. Our thoughts are with those he loved and with the people of South Africa for whom he gave his freedom and life. Lawyer, revolutionary, civil and human rights advocate, political prisoner, master political strategist, statesman, democratic political leader, Nobel Peace Prize laureate–a salute and gratitude to him for having dedicated his life to making positive social change for the people of South Africa and for the world. Yes, a single individual, working with dedicated social movements, can begin to change the world. His greatest legacy will be the continuing struggle for justice carried on by its peoples. We are not really ready for him to leave now. But we celebrate his extraordinary life and his singular impact on the world, nevertheless. Nothing more can be asked of him; a life truly well-lived.

We remember the violence and racism of the apartheid regime and the many who gave their lives and freedom to end it. But because of Mandela and other great leaders and activists, there are also all those unforgettable moments of inspiration and hope:

  • Protests and arrests outside the apartheid regime’s embassies.
  • Shantytowns on university campuses in solidarity with the people of South Africa.
  • Free South Africa movement signs on the lawns of religious institutions across the globe.
  • Artists and Athletes Against Apartheid and millions singing “Free, Nelson Mandela!”
  • The U.S. Senate Override of President Reagan’s veto of the 1986 Anti-Apartheid Act.
  • Freed political prisoner Nelson R. Mandela and anti-apartheid activist Winnie Mandela walking hand in hand as Mandela was released from 27 years of imprisonment.
  • The 1994 first democratic elections in South Africa, with miles-long lines of African people who had never previously been allowed to vote.
  • President Mandela taking the oath of office.
  • President Mandela stepping down from his term in office.
  • The recognition and elaboration of social, economic, and cultural rights; the prohibition on the death penalty.
  • The voices of ordinary witnesses testifying before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
  • Mandela advocating for HIV/AIDS prevention and accessible treatment.
  • Madiba and freedom fighter and lawyer Graca Machel finding friendship, political engagement, love, and companionship as he retired from public life.

Then, there was that smile. Some commentators interpret Mr. Mandela’s famous light up the room smile as “harmless” or “conciliatory.” To me it was a smile of joy at finally being able to spend time with his children and grandchildren and a smile at his own wry sense of humor that helped sustain him and his fellow prisoners for so many years. It was also a smile of expectation and transformation. For this iron-willed man, that smile challenged his former enemies, comrades, and admirers alike not simply to continue as before, but to transform–to become our best selves. It was a smile that said, “anything is possible, why don’t you try?”

God bless Madiba. God bless Africa. Amandla! Awethu!

IntLawGrrl Hope Lewis is Professor of Law & Faculty Director of Global
Legal Studies at Northeastern University School of Law. She was a long-time
participant in the global anti-apartheid movement, including as a Research Fellow
for TransAfrica, the US Foreign Policy NGO on Africa and the Caribbean, in 1986-1988.

Reposted from the IntLawGrrls blog. You can find the original post here.)

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