Anti-apartheid activist and former President of South Africa Nelson Mandela has died at 95 leaving behind a legacy that spans from the small villages of the Eastern Cape of South Africa to right here in Philadelphia, Pa.
Mandela’s death comes after a string of hospitalizations that began in Feb. 2011 with a respiratory infection, and later, a lung infection that worsened in early June of this year. For several days this summer, the Nobel Peace Prize winner was reported to have been in critical condition spurring numerous premature announcements of his death.
But Mandela eventually recovered from his illness, went on to celebrate his 95th birthday in July, and was released from the hospital in September.
South African President Jacob Zuma announced Mandela's death at a press conference Thursday.
Among a long list of accomplishments, Mandela is best known for his self-sacrificing efforts to overthrow the National Party's apartheid policies as a member of the African National Congress in South Africa in the 1940s. Mandela was arrested in 1962 and eventually spent 27 years as a political prisoner.
Former Pennsylvania Congressman William Gray, who died in July of this year, helped author an anti-Apartheid bill that many believe lead the way for the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986 and ultimately resulted in Mandela being released from prison on Feb. 11, 1990.
Gray credited Mandela for being a “spiritual giant.”
“I think when history is written of the twentieth century, beside Ghandi and Martin Luther King, I think the next giant is going to be Nelson Mandela,” Gray said. “He was an unusual man who had been in jail for almost 30 years because of his beliefs in equality and the dignity of the human spirit. But yet he did not hate; he came out and became a force for reconciliation and healing.”
Less than three years after his release from prison, in July 1993, Mandela’s life’s work led him to the steps of Independence Hall in Philadelphia where he and then South Africa president F. W. de Klerk were presented with the Philadelphia Liberty Medal by then U.S. President Bill Clinton.
In his acceptance speech, Mandela spoke of the many obstacles that had yet to be overcome and sought Americans’ continued support of his efforts to bring equality to his country.
“In the struggle for real change and a just peace, we will have to overcome the terrible heritage of the insult to human dignity, the inequalities, the conflicts and antagonisms that are the true expression of the apartheid system. To overcome them, we will have to succeed to build one nation in which all South Africans will be to one another sister and brother, sharing a common destiny and shorn of the terrible curse of having to define themselves in racial and ethnic terms,” Mandela said.
In a last minute addition to his trip to Philadelphia, Mandela obliged an invitation to visit Bright Hope Baptist Church in North Philadelphia where Gray then served as the church’s reverend. There, Mandela appealed for supporters to raise money for a voter-education campaign in anticipation of elections in his country the following year.
Gray cited the visit as one of the proudest moments of his career.
“The most important thing to me, for those people who know me, was my ministry. I'm a Baptist minister first. And so to have him come to North Philadelphia, stand in the pulpit of the Bright Hope Baptist Church, and speak to that congregation was the most emotional moment, really, I think of my whole legislative career. Not passing 4 trillion dollar plus budgets, but that moment when he stood at Bright Hope Baptist Church up at 12th and Cecil B. Moore and spoke to an overflowed crowd that was all over 12th street, all over Cecil B. Moore Avenue; that was just unbelievable,” Gray said.
One year later, on May 9, 1994, Mandela was elected by Parliament as the first president of a democratic South Africa.
Though now deceased, he left a lasting impact on many of Pennsylvania’s leaders, including former Philadelphia Mayor Wilson Goode.
Goode met Mandela during his visit to Philadelphia and participated in fundraising efforts for his presidential run in South Africa.
“Anyone who is found in his presence is said to be inspired by the magnitude of what he went through, and what he accomplished, and the boldness of his character, and the stick-to-it-ness, and his determination to bring equality and freedom to South Africa,” Goode said.
“I think I was inspired by the essence of the man who spent 27 years in prison because of what he believed and was able to come out of prison and become president, and lead a nation to a new level. That is inspiration for anyone, anywhere, in any country.”
Gray said his life would have been different had he not known Mandela.
"I think what would have changed, is not my work in ministry, not my work in the Congress so much, but me as a person. In 1991, I did something that defied the world and that was I left Congress as the highest ranking African-American, the majority whip, and went back to education to raise money to send low income African-American kids to college. And I think I would not have done that had it not been for the influence of a Nelson Mandela who said, "Stand up for what you believe in. And no matter what the rest of the world says or does, go do it.”