On the passing of Nelson Mandela: A letter to my children

Nelson Mandela’s passing has impacted the global community, and a letter from a father to his children aims to capture the impact the South African leader had on his life.

AP Photo
Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, right, leads a prayer service in memory of former South African president Nelson Mandela, at St George's Cathedral in Cape Town, South Africa, Dec. 6, 2013.

David Orth-Moore is a regional director for Catholic Relief Services, an international aide group that provides services for more than 100 million people in 91 countries on five continents. The following is a letter from David to his children about the passing of Nelson Mandela, who died December 5, 2013, at the age of 95.

I wanted to share with you my feelings about Nelson Mandela, who passed away today at the ripe age of 95.

I remember in college thinking about the terrible injustice in South Africa and how could they imprison a man just for speaking out against racial injustice. Of course in high school I wasn’t aware of these kinds of things like you kids are about the world. I was buried in white middle class suburbia unaware of what was happening in the world. But in college, I began to wake up and have a new consciousness about inequality in the world, whether in Latin American, South Africa, or Soviet Union (Russia). This all happened while I was in college, even a very conservative college in rural Pennsylvania.

What you may not hear today was that our country was slow to officially condemn apartheid. Ronald Reagan had to be pushed to finally put the moral weight of the USA against the injustice of apartheid. In fact, at first President Reagan called the African National Congress (ANC), the South African political party exiled to neighboring African countries for fighting against apartheid, a terrorist organization. Dick Cheney (former Vice President to Bush II), voted against economic sanctions to South Africa in the 1980s, even when the rest of the world was condemning apartheid. It was from the college campuses around the United States that the pressure came, people marching in front of the South Africa embassy in Washington in 1980s and pushing for disinvestment in the South Africa economy. The economic and political sanctions against the apartheid government finally brought it down. I even contacted my financial accountant in Merrill Lynch in the late 1980s to disinvest my small investments in any South African companies.

I am a bit embarrassed as an American to think how long it took us as a country to condemn apartheid considering our own history of slavery and the slow pace of civil rights for all Americans, regardless of color. I guess the important thing is that we finally did come around, and America’s weight did help to convince the white South African government to yield to majority rule.

In Senegal (while I was in Peace Corps), I finally learned how important a symbol Nelson Mandela was in all of Africa. While the rest of the continent won it’s freedom from their colonialists, South Africa stood against the world alone in promoting the concept of inequality among races. They maintained that white skin was better than black skin and reinforced this idea with a barrel of a gun. Society treated the majority black South Africans as dogs – literally. They were forced into makeshift cities to live in metal shacks that had no plumbing; they went to schools without resources and books; and all the while they had to serve the whites – in their homes, factories, mines... 

If you want to know more about how blacks in South Africa were treated as late in 1970s – when I was in my teens - there was movie called “Cry Freedom” about Steven Biko, who died at the hands of a police beating for his role in promoting freedom in his own country. The movie has the added benefit of seeing Denzel Washington and Kevin Kline early in their careers.

Back then, Mandela was a symbol of moral authority for injustice throughout the world. And those of us in Peace Corps wondered when South Africa would become free, where 95% of the population would be able to govern themselves. It’s important to know that many of us around the world thought when the moment of freedom came, there would be an exodus (or worse) of whites from South Africa because they would fear being ruled by the black majority. How wrong we were because Mandela, as president, reassured and encouraged whites to remain and work with blacks in the country. He established a ground-breaking Truth and Reconciliation Commission with the sole purpose of letting everyone state what happened to them, and if you were white, and perpetrated crimes against blacks (or vice versa), to be forgiven. There was no punishment for anyone who came forward and spoke about what they did so long as they asked for forgiveness. This model of forgiveness is now being used in South Sudan following their struggle for independence over the past 50 years. He truly lived Christ’s message of forgiveness and set a good example.

Mandela was finally released from prison in 1990. I remember the moment well because Unkie called me (and woke me up) in the morning to turn on the TV because Mandela was walking out of prison. It was an electric moment and finally started the process of transferring power from minority white rule to majority rule. I was deeply in love with Africa and celebrated like everyone else at the new day. Mom and I probably celebrated at Kilimanjaro Club in downtown Washington.  

From release to becoming President and elder statesman, Mandela has been a symbol of righteous struggle for equality, perseverance in the face of tremendous odds, and the simple grace of forgiveness to help heal old wounds. Following his presidency, South Africa continues to follow the democratic traditions he established and the country is by far the most economically advanced on the continent. 

Mandela’s simple act of fighting inequality cost him 24 years in prison. At any moment, he could have renounced his struggle and accepted apartheid in order to be released. But he refused these offers because he know it would take self-sacrifice and patience. And after all he experienced, he still forgave his oppressors in order to demonstrate how the future can be – he was a visionary. He gave us hope that no matter how insurmountable oppression or inequality might be, right will prevail. Just like Gandhi before him, Mandela treated everyone as a prince, and the prince in everyone (even those who hated him), came forth.

Much love,


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