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The First Time I Heard The Name 'Mandela'

People gather to leave messages of support for Nelson Mandela outside his hospital in Pretoria, South Africa, earlier this year. Mandela has died at the age of 95.
Jeff J Mitchell
Getty Images
People gather to leave messages of support for Nelson Mandela outside his hospital in Pretoria, South Africa, earlier this year. Mandela has died at the age of 95.

I can't be sure, but it seems to me I first heard the words "Nelson Mandela" when I was in college, way back in the '70s. There was a lot of anti-apartheid activity, lots of demonstrations to encourage several universities to pull their investments out of South Africa. Somewhere in there came the story of a freedom fighter who'd been jailed on a barren island, in solitary confinement, for longer than many of us protesters had been alive.

A few years later, an infectious tune started seeping onto dance floors, the product of an integrated band that mixed politics with their pop:

Free Nelson Mandela!
Free, free, free Nelson Mandela!

Written by Jerry Dammers and performed by The Special AKA, the song told about Mandela's imprisonment in an infectiously catchy Afro-pop/ska beat, and educated a lot of people who wanted to know more about who this Nelson Mandela was.

21 years in captivity
Shoes too small to fit his feet
His body abused, but his mind is still free
Are you so blind that you cannot see, I said ...
Free Nelson Mandela ...

And, several years and a lot of international intercession after that, he was.

Feb. 11, 1990.

You remember the pictures: Nelson Mandela, walking, erect, out of Victor Verster, his last prison, flanked by his African National Congress colleagues and his then-wife, Winnie, as shutters clicked, cameras rolled, and his countrymen joyously did the toi-toi to celebrate his liberation. You could hear his Xhosa clan name being chanted: Ma-di-ba! Ma-di-ba!

He toured the world shortly after that, raising money for ANC programs. His last stop in the U.S. was Los Angeles. It had been a grueling trip — 27 years in some of the world's most infamous prisons had to have taken its toll. But everywhere he went, Madiba smiled, waved and urged people to look forward, not back, and to work together to achieve a common goal.

We black Americans, who had seen so many of our own heroes in the struggle cut down, were especially touched: Here was a man who had lived to reach his goal — or at least the beginnings of it. Unlike the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers (and Bobby Kennedy, whose portrait hung with his big brother's and Dr. King's in many a black household), here was a hero who'd survived.

Morgan Freeman, who usually played God, was chosen to portray him in Invictus. It seemed appropriate.

The sad stuff would come later — tales of corruption among ANC leaders, the distance and eventual divorce from Winnie, the eventual return of violence to too many parts of South Africa. He became the subject of a tug of war among feuding political heirs, and even real family, who fussed over the intentions of his philanthropic largesse.

Of course there will be a huge state ceremony and memorial services around the globe. The hymn-like beauty of "God Bless Africa," the South African national anthem, will float up, up, slow and graceful, toward the arches of grand cathedrals, from inside small whitewashed churches in the countryside. On playing fields after a moment of silence.

But I'll be thinking of another song, and remembering the generosity of the man who inspired it: Free Nelson Mandela ...

Freed now. Godspeed.

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Karen Grigsby Bates is the Senior Correspondent for Code Switch, a podcast that reports on race and ethnicity. A veteran NPR reporter, Bates covered race for the network for several years before becoming a founding member of the Code Switch team. She is especially interested in stories about the hidden history of race in America—and in the intersection of race and culture. She oversees much of Code Switch's coverage of books by and about people of color, as well as issues of race in the publishing industry. Bates is the co-author of a best-selling etiquette book (Basic Black: Home Training for Modern Times) and two mystery novels; she is also a contributor to several anthologies of essays. She lives in Los Angeles and reports from NPR West.
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