Posted: Jul 05, 2013 2:05 PM
 
Due to recent health concerns, Nelson Mandela, the 94-year-old anti-apartheid African leader, has received a lot of media attention lately. Find out what makes this man so important, and why you (and your kids) should care.

To understand Nelson Mandela's importance, one must first understand South Africa, his home country. Rich in farmland and natural resources (the country remains one of the world leaders in the production of gold, diamonds and platinum), South Africa was first colonized by the English and Dutch in the seventeenth century. When diamonds were discovered in 1900 in Dutch-occupied land, England invaded and war erupted between Dutch (Afrikaner) and English forces. The two forces fought for governance over land that was never theirs.

After gaining independence from England, Afrikaner political strategists invented apartheid (official government policy of racial segregation) as a way to maintain power and secure white domination.

After gaining independence from England, Afrikaner political strategists invented apartheid (official government policy of racial segregation) as a way to maintain power and secure white domination. Every area of economic and social life was governed by racial laws. Marriages between whites and "non-whites" were illegal. People were classified into three categories: "white" (European descent), "black" (of an African tribe) and "colored" (Asian, Indian or mixed race).

Classifications were determined by the government based on "appearance, social acceptance and descent" (source). In 1951, apartheid was taken to a new level when the country was divided into "homelands," independent states to which each African was designated. Citizenship and voting rights were limited to those independent states, but the South African parliament maintained complete control over them. In other words, Africans lost citizenship in their own country. Blacks were required to carry "pass-books" whenever they entered any "white-only" land, and to enter their own country (leave their "homeland"), they were required to carry a passport.

Mr. Mandela

Rolihlahla Mandela was born into the African Madiba clan in Mvezo, Transkei, on July 18, 1918. Required to adopt a Christian name, "Nelson" began fighting for the freedom of his people as a young man. He became actively involved in the anti-apartheid movement in his 20s, joining the African National Congress in 1942. For 20 years, he fought apartheid peacefully, leading non-violent resistance to racist policies. He was imprisoned often. In 1962, facing the death penalty, he spoke words that would become immortalized:

"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." (Source)
In May 1994, he became the first democratically elected president of South Africa.

The day after speaking these words, Mandela was sentenced to life imprisonment. For 26 years, he lived imprisoned, though eventually he gained a more comfortable existence, which you can read about here. He was released in 1990 and voted for the first time in his life in 1994. He was given the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993. Upon his release from prison, he devoted his life to ending white minority rule in South Africa. In May 1994, he became the first democratically elected president of South Africa.

He is now 94 years old. Suffering from a lung condition since June 8, Mr. Mandela is currently in critical but "stable" condition.

Why do we care?

Mandela is a hero alongside the great American civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr., Eleanor Roosevelt and Cesar Chavez (among many, many others).

Why should we teach our kids about Mandela? What's it got to do with us? Mandela is a hero alongside the great American civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr., Eleanor Roosevelt and Cesar Chavez (among many, many others). The fact that his work involved another country does not diminish its relevance to ours. American anti-apartheid laws in the '70s and '80s helped lead to the ultimate dissolution of apartheid in South Africa. Europeans colonized South Africa for economic purposes. Much like America's system of chattel slavery and institutionalized racism, the desire for economic power drove social systems of inequality and discrimination.

Our children need to know this to understand how countries are intertwined, and how economic decisions made on American soil affect other countries. Though some believe we only live in a "global economy" recently (through the internet and increasing ease of global travel), the fact is we've always lived in a global economy (as histories of colonization and trade illustrate). It may have taken longer to make trades and war happen, but it was definitely happening. South Africa demonstrates that inter-dependence.

Personally, I want my kids to understand the way economic interests drive social systems, and how racial discrimination affords a material benefit to those in power. It isn't just "bad morals" or a negative belief system toward a particular race (though of course it's that too). Rather, it's an arrangement that affords those in power, to put it bluntly, money.

In a world obsessed with the Kardashians, I want their focus on real heroes, fighting for things that really matter...

And I want my kids to understand what the drive for money and power can cause. It's not pleasant to talk about apartheid. It's not pleasant to talk about non-violent civil rights leaders imprisoned for 26 years. But I want my kids to know that people like Mandela exist, and in a world obsessed with the Kardashians, I want their focus on real heroes, fighting for things that really matter, in a world still desperate for change, still working for freedom, still looking to people like Mr. Mandela for inspiration and truth.

He turns 95 on July 18. What a birth to celebrate.

More on civil rights

Hey Paula Deen, slaves were not your "family"
Boy Scouts and bigotry
Coy Mathis, redefining acceptance by the second grade

Topics: nelson mandela