Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s first black president, died today at the age of 95, more than two decades after he visited Oakland as part of a U.S. tour to rally support for anti-apartheid efforts.
Mandela served as president of South Africa from 1994 to 1999. Representing the political party African National Congress, he was elected after serving 27 years in various prisons for fighting against the apartheid regime.
His death, announced today by South African President Jacob Zuma, has prompted reaction from elected officials in the Bay Area and beyond, reflecting on the legacy of one of the world’s most renowned civil rights leaders.
In his quest for equality for black and white people in his country, Mandela became a world leader that President Barack Obama today remembered as “one of the most influential, courageous, and profoundly good human beings that any of us will share time with on this Earth.”
State Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, remembered joining tens of thousands at the Oakland Coliseum on June 30, 1990, to see Mandela, who thanked the crowd for supporting his efforts to bring down the racist government in South Africa—just after his release from a nearly three-decade prison term.
Skinner said hosting Mandela in the East Bay was a “thrilling moment for me.”
While she was a graduate student at the University of California at Berkeley in the 1980s, Skinner said she led campus divestment efforts and organized peaceful sit-ins and other protests against the university’s investments in corporations and banks doing business with the South African government.
She said Mandela represented what true democracy is about and had told the American crowd during his visit that “our purpose is to empower the people of South Africa,” according to Skinner.
She recalled her awe of the world leader, “Just to see this person who under the incredible duress (of imprisonment)…was not bitter. He has no equal.”
Gideon Bendile, 62, is a member of the South African band Zulu Spear, which performed at Mandela’s visit at the Oakland Coliseum.
Bendile, who grew up in Johannesburg and left his native country in 1975 at the age of 21, remembered performing for Mandela, whom he occasionally affectionately called “Madiba.”
He recalled the experience in Oakland as “just breathtaking” and went on, “I could just remember that very well. I was really angry. I left it right at the stadium.”
He said hearing Mandela speak about peace and equality prompted the musician to never seek revenge again.
“That’s when I felt peace within myself,” he said. “He was just a person like me and you.”
Bendile, who now lives in Rohnert Park, said he has been in mourning today.
“I’m thinking of all the good things Nelson Mandela has done,” he said. “I’m still kind of shocked” even though his death was expected with his declining health and old age.
As part of the South African community in the Bay Area, Bendile said he has been getting calls from friends throughout the afternoon. Mandela’s passing is rekindling his hope for world peace.
“Apartheid is not just about being black and white, but about having respect for other people,” he said.
Andrea Turner, the lead choir director of the Oakland-based Vukani Mawethu Choir, reflected on the experience of bringing more than 200 singers to flank Mandela at his Oakland debut.
“It was an exciting moment,” Turner said. “It was one of Oakland’s finest moments.”
She said a diverse group of teachers, students, union members, church members, and others came together to sing for Mandela.
Today Turner said she has been crying remembering the man she revered as a “king” in his struggle to end apartheid and racism in his country and beyond.
“We must keep his vision alive,” she said. “The struggle isn’t over, it never is.”
Sasha Lekach, Bay City News