Highlights: Mandela Centenary Celebration

South Africa Partners, June 20, 2018

On Sunday, June 17, 2018, South Africa Partners and the JFK Library Foundation hosted an open discussion with South African activists Max and Elinor Sisulu at the JFK Presidential Library and Museum to honor Nelson Mandela’s Centenary. The event celebrated Mandela’s uniting leadership and reflected on its relevance today for the next generation of leaders who are carrying his vision forward. Young Bostonians from the Boston City Singers kicked off the day with an exuberant medley of traditional South African songs.

The event also remembered Mandela’s historic visit to Boston on June 23, 1990, an event that brought Boston communities together in celebration of democracy and racial justice.



Why We Celebrate Mandela’s Centenary

Dr. Judy Bigby, South Africa Partners Executive Director

Nelson Mandela would have turned 100 years on July 18 this year. On this occasion we remember Nelson Mandela not only for the impact he had on his own nation, but also for the impact he had on ours. President Barack Obama often said that Mandela was one of the most important leaders who inspired him even though they were generations apart.

Today we remember the sacrifices Mandela made and appreciate how extraordinary it is that after spending 27 years in prison, upon his release at age 72 he led the effort to dismantle the legacy of apartheid. He and his peers tackled institutionalized racism and restored human rights for all South Africans. He withstood the challenge of bringing together a divided country when many expected the nation would go up in flames. President Obama recognized that Mandela’s “…extraordinary vision, leadership, and spirit as well as his example of tolerance, compassion, and reconciliation are as meaningful today as they were in his lifetime.” Aspiring leaders can learn from his example and commit to those values as they look to the future.

Many of us in Boston witnessed firsthand the impact of Mandela’s leadership when he visited in June 1990 shortly after his release from prison. Boston was a city still uneasy with its own diversity and history of racism. Mandela noted the historical significance of Boston in the fight for independence and as a leader of the abolitionist movement. He acknowledged Massachusetts as the first state to divest its pension funds from companies that did business with South Africa. Nevertheless, in 1990, the city remained segregated and the memories of racial tensions after antibusing demonstrations in the 70’s and 80’s remained. I do not know whether Mandela was aware that the African American community of Roxbury, one stop on his tour of Boston, had taken a vote to secede from Boston and rename itself Mandela.

In Roxbury blacks cheered as he made his way to Madison Park High School where he addressed black youth about the importance of staying in school. Later when he spoke on the Esplanade, more than 200,000 people of all races greeted him and cheered as he joined arms with local leaders black and white. On that day, it felt like there was racial harmony. There was definitely a great sense of hope and a collective appreciation for Nelson Mandela as a visionary leader.

So this year, we celebrate Mandela with the hope that we will honor his memory for many years to come by meeting head on the challenges that we face in South Africa and in the US to achieve racial and economic justice and equality in both countries.

Thank you for joining us on this momentous occasion,

Photos by Paul Drake