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“Our path is to recognize freedom as state of consciousness, not a condition of circumstances. I greet you all in the name of peace, democracy and freedom for all!” – Nelson Mandela.

Nelson Mandela clocks 93 years old. In celebration of his birthday and to mark Nelson Mandela International Day, the Nelson Mandela Foundations are asking people around the world to devote sixty-seven minutes of their time to community service. The theme of this year’s Nelson Mandela International Day is: ‘Take Action; Inspire Change; Make Every Day a Mandela Day’. The Nelson Mandela International Day was established in 2009 by the United Nations in recognition of his achievements and courageous leadership toward global peace, freedom, and democracy.

Nelson Mandela is an anti-apartheid activist and defender of freedom who won an insurmountable battle against apartheid regime and repressive treatment of blacks in South Africa. Nelson Mandela stood his grounds and with his indomitable courage, strength, wisdom and patience defeated apartheid regime and dismantled the oppression of black people of South Africa. He is a true hero, loved and admired around the world for his dedication to the struggle against apartheid in South Africa and to justice, freedom and peace throughout the world. Nelson Mandela is a living legend, a true gem and without doubt, one of the iconic leaders and remarkable political figures of the twentieth century. He is Africa’s illustrious son, a global treasure and the pride of the continent.

But who is Nelson Mandela? What motivated a rural and village boy to wage such war against the worst racist regime ever known to mankind? What attributes or qualities endeared him the influence and fame he commands today?

Nelson Madiba Rolihlahla Mandela was born at Mevezo, a tiny village on the banks of the Mbashe River in the district of Umtata, the capital of Transkei South Africa on July 18, 1918. In his international bestseller, “Long Walk to Freedom, “Nelson Mandela writes, “the year of my birth marked the end of Great War; the outbreak of an influenza epidemic that killed millions throughout the world; and the visits of a delegation of the African National Congress to the Versailles peace conference to voice the grievances of the African people of South Africa. Mvezo, he writes, was a place part, a tiny precinct removed from the world of great events, where life was lived as it had been for hundreds of years.”

His father, Gadla Henry Mphakanyiswa, was a chief of Mvezo among the Thembu tribe. Mandela was trained as a lawyer at University College of Fort Hare and the University of Witwatersrand and in 1942 was called to the bar. In his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, he brilliantly summarizes the racist government of South Africa that led him to the struggle of his life.

“I cannot pinpoint a moment when I became politicized, when I knew that I would spend my life in the liberation struggle. To be an African in South Africa means that one is politicized from the moment o one’s birth, whether one acknowledges it or not. An African child is born in an Africans Only hospital, taken home in an Africans Only bus, lives in an Africans Only area, and attends Africans Only schools, if he attends school at all. When he grows up, he can Only hold Africans Only jobs, rent a house in Africans Only townships, ride Africans Only trains, and he stopped at any time of the day or night and be ordered to produce a pass, failing which he will be arrested and thrown in jail. His life is circumscribed by racist laws and regulations that cripple his growth, dim his potential, stunt his life. This was the reality, and one could deal with it in a myriad of ways.”

That diabolical and inhuman treatment of black Africans in South Africa produced in Nelson Mandela anger, a rebellion, and an indomitable spirit to fight the system that imprisoned his people.

In 1944, Nelson Mandela joined the African National Congress (ANC) and was engaged in resistance against the ruling National Party's apartheid policies. He was arrested for treason in 1956 and in 1961, he was acquitted. In 1960, after ANC was banned, Nelson Mandela with a few friends formed the ‘Umkhonto we Sizwe,’ designed to wage and counter the repressive apartheid regime. Between 1962 and 1963, Nelson Mandela and many of the leaders of ANC and the Umkhonto we Sizwe were arrested, Mandela was brought to stand trial with them for plotting to overthrow the government by violence. On June 12, 1964, eight of the accused, including Mandela, were sentenced to life imprisonment. From 1964 to 1982, he was incarcerated at Robben Island Prison, off Cape Town, where he served almost 27 years.

While in prison, Nelson Mandela's reputation grew steadily. He was widely accepted as the most significant black leader in South Africa. He married Winnie Mandela, and both became a potent symbol of resistance as the anti-apartheid movement gathered strength. Mandela consistently refused to compromise his political position to obtain his freedom. Through the activities of Winnie, his wife, anti-apartheid movement won the hearts of millions of people across the globe, which eventually led to the release of Mandela and dethronement of the racist regime in South Africa Nelson.

On February 11, 1990, Nelson Mandela was released from prison. After his release, he devoted himself wholeheartedly into his life's work, striving to attain the goals he and others had set out almost four decades earlier. In 1991, at the first national conference of the ANC, Nelson Mandela was elected President of the ANC while his lifelong friend and colleague, Oliver Tambo, became the organization’s National Chairperson. In 1994, Nelson Madiba Rolihlahla Mandela became South Africa’s first democratically elected president. He became the first black president of a free and rich South Africa. Within four years of his presidency, he introduced policies of reconciliation that led to the multi-racial democracy and prosperity that South Africa enjoys today. In 1999, after serving one-term as president, Nelson Mandela declined to run for second-term and retired from active politics – unlike most African rulers today. However, since his retirement from politics, Nelson Mandela has dedicated his life through his various foundations to champion world peace and democracy, inspiring people and empowering communities to make a difference and create a better a world.

In 1993, he was awarded the Nobel Peace prize and in 2009, the United Nations declared July 18, “Nelson Mandela International Day’ in recognition of Nelson Mandela’s contribution to global peace, freedom and democracy.

Nelson Mandela is a story of an innocent child born into a racist and diabolical system of apartheid in South Africa, from his carefree days as an ordinary village poor boy, to his unflinching struggle against apartheid, his unflinching leadership of the ANC, the long donkey years of imprisonment and his eventual freedom and extraordinary election to the presidency of South Africa. His life is a testament to the power and strength of the human spirit to transcend evil and satanic government structure of our time. His life, story, and struggle are one of the tapestries of any political tales of the 20th century.

On his freedom and release from prison, Nelson Mandela, writes, “When I walked out of prison that was my mission, to liberate the oppressed and the oppressor both. Some say that has now been achieved. But I know that is not the case. The truth is that we are not yet free; we have merely achieved the freedom to be free, the right not to be oppressed. We have not taken the final step of our journey, but the first step on a longer and even more difficult road. For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of other.”

Nelson Mandela is so correct. Freedom is the true essence of living. It is in its true sense the quality of God, just as love, beauty, harmony, joy, abundance and peace are all extricable qualities of God. Freedom is the very nature of who we are. Mandela once said, “Our path is to recognize freedom as a state of consciousness, not as a condition or circumstances.” Africans must find that true freedom because it is in that freedom that our potentials are released and we are able to fulfill our God given purpose on planet earth.

Freedom for blacks in South African or in many nations around the world is a long road ahead. The last statistics I read state that there are three million young people black Africans infected invited with HIV or AIDS. The infrastructure in black townships is still far behind the white townships and black children are also far behind their white counterparts in education and professional development. Although South Africa largely remains one of the richest nations in the world and the blacks have held the office of the presidency since 1994, the economic power of South Africa is still in the hands of white South Africans and major infrastructural development are more visible in White communities..

Nelson Mandela concludes his autobiography with these words, “I have walked that long road to freedom. I have tried not to falter; I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more to hills to climb. I have take a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come. But I can rest only for a moment, for with freedom come responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not yet ended.”

Because of Mandela’s fame and iconic figure; entrepreneurs, investors, philanthropists, etc., have gone to South African to invest. Oprah Winfrey, a TV mogul, few years ago established a 40 million dollars Women’s leadership school for training, developing and equipping young black African girls for leadership and entrepreneurship in South Africa. The $40 million School was opened with much fanfare and with a ceremony that attracted a cast of celebrities including Nelson Mandela himself, Spike Lee, Sidney Poitier, Mariah Carey and Tina Turner, among others. Other philanthropists have also come to South African to help fight the scourge of HIV among the young blacks in South Africa. The road to total emancipation and freedom is still way ahead.

Also because of Nelson Mandela’s global influence, South Africa won the contest in 2004 to host the 2010 FIFA World Cup. Many thought that South Africa would not pull-off the global fiesta due to poor infrastructure, crime and other social ills. In fact, many Western media, foreign sport newspapers and even African sport writers doubted the organizational ability and resources to stage such global event. But from what we saw, even though billions of rands were spent to build new stadiums, upgrade existing stadiums, and improve infrastructure such as roads and transportation – the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South African was impressive , colorful, and a huge success. South Africa football federation and the government proved the cynics and doubters wrong. The 2010 world Cup not only exposed the beauty and the organizational strength of African people but assured the world organizations and world leaders that if given the opportunity, Africans can successfully host these global events.

However, Africa still has a long way to walk where it ought to be among the comity of nations. I would never forget the rare opportunity to meet with the late Mrs. Coretta Scott King at the Kings Center in 1996. When she found out that I am a Nigerian, she became interested to chat with me. We talked about Africa. She told me of her admiration for Nelson Mandela, Bishop Desmond Tutu, Kwame Nkrumah, and few others. She had great respect and admiration for African leaders of the colonial era, but wondered since obtaining independence, why Africa has floundered and not risen to its potential and why there is still enormous poverty despite abundance of human and natural resources. We simply talked about Africa’s history, renaissance, democracy and hope for the future.

Fifty years later, a cursory look at the continent still reveals shocking atrocities of religious and tribal conflict, moral decadence, political instability, corrupt rulers, violence, poverty, disease, and death. From Senegal to Sierra Leone, Nigeria to Sudan, Eritrea to Ethiopia, Uganda to Somalia, Tanzania to Congo, Mozambique and others, all you see is conflict, militancy and corrupt rulers. Transparency International and other credible financial crime agencies reported that African rulers have stolen from the continent trillions of U.S. dollars since the last 50 years. Sadly enough, most of the money ends up in foreign banks of the rich Western countries.

African needs more of the likes of Nelson Mandela and prophetic leaders like Martin Luther King Jr., etc – even though they are rare breed and sometimes, they are gift that comes once every century or so. Throughout history, such people have made impact by their strength, courage and great leadership. The father of the American nation, Abraham Lincoln did not only abolish slave trade through the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, but he was courageous enough to unite a nation and preserved the Union through a policy of reconciliation despite the apposition from his party. The British Prime Minster, Sir Winston Church and his American counterpart, Franklin Roosevelt provided courageous leadership that led to the defeat of German Adolph Hitler. Their decisive leadership helped rebuild Europe and restored the world from economic crisis and world war.

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. prophetically and courageously inspired the United States of America and the world to judge people by the content of their character and not by the color of their skin. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. inspired the United States of America and the world with his non-violent civil right activities and the famous "I have a Dream" speech, which electrified the entire nation to rethink of its segregation and enslavement laws. His powerful oratory and courageous leadership freed an entire nation from hate, bigotry and self-destruction and gave millions freedom and hope around the world.

The late American president, Ronald Reagan challenged his Russian counterpart, Mikhail Gorbaceov to tear down the walls of Germany otherwise the two countries will meet in the woods. During Africa’s struggle for independence, Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah and Nigeria’s Nnamdi Azikiwe and other were courageous enough to demand for independence from their colonial masters. Mrs. Bhutto paid the ultimate sacrifice for her unbridled faith in the democratization of Pakistan and fight against the tyranny of Islamic fundamentalism. These were men and women of great insight, divine strength and wise leadership. These leaders made significant impact and contributed immensely to world peace and prosperity because of their courageous leadership. They epitomized the true essence of leadership.

Although, South Africa overcame the worst racist and apartheid regime nearly two decades ago, the nation has made tremendous progress politically, economically and socially. It is the biggest economy in Africa and perhaps, one of the richest countries in the world. South Africa has a stable democratic government in Africa. Additionally, South Africa has improved its infrastructure and can easily conduct any global event especially after becoming the world champions of rugby in 1995 and hosting world cup in 2010, largely due to the inspirational leadership of Nelson Mandela. In fact the entire movie – INVICTUS, which was directed by Clint Eastwood tells the inspiring true story of how President Nelson Mandela – interpreted by Grammy ward winning actor, Morgan Freeman, joined forces with the captain of South Rugby team to win the 1995 rugby finals in South Africa. It was amazing to see President visit the captain of the South African rugby team at his home in order to inspire the young captain and brainstorm with him on how South Africa could win the championship. And they did, thanks to the captain motivating his team-mates before and during the game and off-course President Mandela’s inspirational leadership.

Nelson Mandela is truly a global citizen and iconic leader. He is true gem, a genuine human being – a father to six children and grand-father of twenty-seven children. History has recorded the names of statesmen such as Franklin Roosevelt, George Washington, Theodore Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Albert Einstein, Winston Churchill, Charles De Gaulle, John F. Kennedy, Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, Pope John Paul II, Billy Graham, John Wesley, Watchman Nee, Mother Teresa, Mahatma Gandhi, Marcus Garvey, Toussaint Louverture, Martin Luther King Jr ¸Nkwame Nkrumah, Nelson Mandela and others in gold. Nelson Mandela has been compared to few iconic international leaders of all time. Nelson Mandela was the symbol to end apartheid in South Africa, while Martin Luther King Jr. was the symbol of the civil rights movement in the US, and Gandhi was the symbol of the independence struggle in India. The Canadian Montreal Gazette compared it this way, “The man (Nelson Mandela) is his country’s combined Washington, Lincoln, and Gandhi.” His indomitable spirit, charisma, compassion, courage have been a source of inspiration for millions around the world. He’s truly a global treasure and the pride of Africa.

Congratulations to Nelson Madiba Rolihlahla Mandela on your 93rd birthday. I wish you the happiest and healthiest life ever. May God’s peace, grace and blessings continue to rest upon you!

Dr. C. Kingston Ekeke is a theologian, author, and IT consultant and leadership scholar.

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