Atlantans mourn Nelson Mandela: “Essence and quintessence of African manhood” left impact on the world

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Few world leaders are spoken about with such reverence. Fewer, still, can imagine spending nearly three decades in prison to come out with a message of reconciliation.

But Nelson Mandela, who died Thursday at his home in suburban Johannesburg, did.

“I call him the essence and quintessence of African manhood. He represented what African manhood aspired to be better than anybody I know,” said civil rights veteran the Rev. Joseph E. Lowery. “He was our most beloved statesmen, crusader, leader, and president. He was a man of strong character. I don’t know anybody I admired more than Nelson Mandela. How does that man stay in prison for 27 years and come out with his head high and dignity still intact? Not hating and not bitter. You have to admire that.”

The iconic and beloved statesman, 95, was rushed to the hospital in June for a severe lung infection. Since then, he had been in and out of the hospital, before spending the last months of his life at his home in Johannesburg. In announcing the death, South Africa’s president called Mandela the country’s “greatest son.”

Mandela, who won a 1993 Nobel Peace Prize, turned 95 on July 18.

Former U.S. President and fellow Nobel Peace Prize winner Jimmy Carter said he and his wife, Rosalynn, were deeply saddened by the death of Mandela.

“The people of South Africa and human rights advocates around the world have lost a great leader. His passion for freedom and justice created new hope for generations of oppressed people worldwide, and because of him, South Africa is today one of the world’s leading democracies,” Carter said. “In recent years, I was gratified to be able to work with him through The Elders to encourage resolution of conflicts and advance social justice and human rights in many nations. We extend our heartfelt condolences to his family at this difficult time.”

Across metro Atlanta, residents, some who knew him intimately and others who only knew about him from news reports and films, mourned the loss of the lawyer-turned-revolutionary who later went from prisoner to president.

“Our world has lost one of the greatest freedom fighters and statesmen of all times,” said Bernice A. King, CEO of The King Center. “Without a doubt, President Nelson Mandela helped to save the soul of South Africa. More than anyone else, Nelson Mandela embodied the same spirit of courage, forgiveness, commitment and willingness to sacrifice for freedom as my father, Martin Luther King, Jr.

Mandela was a peacemaker and believed strongly in reconciliation between the black South African majority and the minority white-ruling population, said Gail DeCosta a business consultant from Decatur.

She should know.

Her husband, the late Rev. Sipo Mzimela, was a member of the Inkata Freedom Party, which was the traditional political rival of Mandela's African National Congress and was selected by Mandela as a member of his cabinet.

Yet, when Mandela became president, he tapped Mzimela to be the Minister of Correctional Services in his first cabinet.

“Mandela has a special care and concern about the prisons in South Africa, so he worked closely with Sipo about reforms,” she said. “Having been in prison himself, Mandela knew how atrocious they were in South Africa. “ Not only were conditions horrible, but youth were often houses alongside adults.

Mandela had a special graciousness that extended beyond political office.

Once, said DeCosta, when her husband and Mandela were announcing the opening of a youth offender facility, Mandela happened to hear that it was DeCosta’s birthday.

“He turned to me and said, ‘Oh, is it your birthday? Happy birthday’,” she said. “He turned to his aide and asked the aide to schedule lunch. And he did. We had lunch at this presidential home in Pretoria. It was so significant because Sipo was the opposition. He was not in Mandela’s party but that didn’t matter to him (Mandela).”

Cedric L. Suzman, executive vice president of the World Affairs Council of Atlanta, is intimately familiar with South Africa’s long political history.

His aunt, Helen Suzman, was a member of the South African Parliament.

“Nelson Mandela always stressed that he was a servant of the ANC, but he always acted in the interests of the country as a whole,” Suzman said. ” Charismatic and of royal demeanor, he was above all, a man of complete integrity and principle, disciplined, demanding of his colleagues, and a master tactician, always focusing on how to achieve his goal of an inclusive democracy for all South Africans. He was loyal, perhaps to a fault, especially to those who had helped him and the ANC in their years of struggle. “

That loyalty extended to the PLO and to former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.

And, on the other hand, to his aunt. Who became unpopular with the ANC because of her opposition to sanctions but “insisted on visiting Mandela on Robben Island and demanded that the prisoners receive access to reading materials, as well as blankets and bedding.”

Former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., Andrew Young, who is also the former mayor of Atlanta, said Mandela “proved that what Martin Luther King (Jr.) did locally and what Gandhi did in India with the British, would work in the most complex multi-cultural environment in southern Africa.”

“Mandela refused to hate and he never gave up,” said Young, a former Atlanta mayor with close ties to Africa. “I think that he proved that violence is not the best way to stabilize a nation.”

Lowery, who received the 2009 Presidential Medal of Freedom, said Mandela always had to balance what was best for South Africa with what the world expected of him.

Lowery would later say that Mandela admitted to have occassionally watched how the civil rights movement played out in America.

“He said he learned from us and admired our commitment to nonviolence,” Lowery said. “But in order for nonviolence to work there has to be a conscience to appeal to. There was no conscience in South Africa to which they could appeal, so nonviolence was much more difficult.”

But as serious as the issues he dealt with Mandela always maintained his genial nature and sense of humor, Lowery said.

Lowery remembers speaking in Durban at Mandela’s retirement dinner. In the southern black church tradition, Lowery went a bit long, as Mandela sat in the audience next to his wife, Evelyn Lowery.

“When he gets up to speak he says very seriously, ‘I enjoyed the unique, beautiful young lady sitting next to me. If her husband had talked five more minutes, I might a had her,’” Lowery said. “I told him when he (Mandela) got through, the years had a worse effect on you than I thought.”

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