Nelson Mandela was a lion of a statesman and an icon for the struggle for social justice especially in South Africa where he served as the country’s first democratically elected president after the dismantling of apartheid. With his recent death this past Friday the world mourns a courageous leader who was a symbol of social justice, freedom, and democracy for his country and for the world. Even before he became president, Nelson Mandela, was a charismatic attorney and a leader of the African National Congress who was on the forefront of dismantling apartheid. For his defiance for the apartheid state he was imprisoned on Robin Island. After his release he took a tour of United States to raise support for the anti-apartheid and I had a chance to meet him on his stop to Oakland, CA in June of 1990 as part of the welcoming community at the Oakland International Airport. I was one of the lucky ones from the Bay Area to welcome him and say a couple words to this civil rights icon.
Growing up with the disability of cerebral palsy always made me set apart from my peers. Because of my severe mobility and speech disability I maneuver in a power wheelchair and communicate with an electronic augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) device. Since I transverse the world in a unique way it had led me to have a desire to advocate for myself and people like myself to have our own voice and our own self-expression. That was why I was so excited to meet Nelson Mandela because he dedicated his life to advocating for the freedom and equality that his people’s deserved and I wanted to follow in his foot steps and advocate for people that are in the same situation as I am.
When my parents informed me that I was selected as part of the welcoming committee to greet Nelson Mandela I was extremely excited. Back then I was nine and did not know much about South African history and apartheid as I would learn when I grew older, but my parents informed me he was one of the main leaders fighting against South African apartheid, which to my mind put him on par with one of my role models, Dr. Martin Luther King. Even though I was just nine I still conceptualized that it clearly was a grave injustice for Nelson Mandela to be locked in prison for twenty-seven years since he advocated for all who inhabited the land that his ancestors lived for centuries have the freedom and democracy that everyone deserves in their home country.
I spent over a week preparing what I was going to say to Nelson Mandela. I had my Dad’s help with ideas of what to say and with revisions. When I was finished I thought I had an excellent five-minute speech stored in my Touch Talker, at least to my nine-year-old self. I waited with excited anticipation for the day I would meet the famed Nelson Mandela. Finally when the day came I went with my whole family to Oakland International Airport. I was ushered to the front of a large crowd that gathered on the side where Nelson Mandela’s plane was going to dock. When Nelson Mandela’s plane finally came and Nelson Mandela appeared with his then wife, Winnie, there was a great cheer from the crowd. I was so nervous I was worried when I finally met this famous high-powered couple I would not be able to push the right buttons on my Touch Talker to speak my prepared speech. When the time came and both Nelson and Winnie Mandela came up to me I was able to speak the prepared statement to the delight of the couple. I believed Mr. Nelson Mandela smiled after he heard what I said to him. I know for sure that Winnie gave me a hug and a few kisses on the cheek. Although I cannot quite recall what Nelson Mandela said to me, I will remember that encounter for the rest of my life.
After our encounter Nelson Mandela of course led to him becoming president of his nation and helped build a thriving democracy. The way he unified his country with his leadership after decades of racial divisions because of apartheid is definitely outstanding. During the death throws of apartheid the country was ready to tear itself apart, but under Nelson Mandela’s leadership he was able to unify the country under one national identity. I was able to visit South Africa in 2008 and I saw first hand the populace’s acceptance of the country’s multicultural heritage, as being an integral part of who they are as a nation and it is an enduring part of Nelson Mandela’s legacy. I am just full of honor and joy that I met this phenomenal man that was such a positive influence to his country and to the world.