By Sarah Roberts
As the world mourns one of the greatest human rights activists of all time, I find myself thinking about the limitations of words. I’m thinking about the way that no eulogy or article can ever feel like enough. Maybe that’s why we hold moments of silence—because deep down we understand that no words of ours will ever do justice to great lives, or great losses. With this in mind, I pay homage to Nelson Mandela using his own striking words, which serve as a reflection of his inclusive efforts and tireless spirit.
While anti-racist and anti-colonialist movements are inherently feminist, Mandela was also a direct champion of gender equality in South Africa. He never forgot women in his fight for freedom.
“Freedom cannot be achieved unless women have been emancipated from all forms of oppression.”
–State of the Union Address, 1994
While serving as president in South Africa, he passed the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, which included amendments that solidified reproductive rights and legal protection from discrimination, rape, and domestic violence. Additionally, it offered legal protections from discrimination due to sexual orientation (the first constitution to do so), marital status, pregnancy, gender, race, and sex.
“Women and girls need safe environments to learn and to work. At the moment, discrimination and violence exacerbate their lack of access to the very tools they need to make their own rights a reality. If girls do not have a safe and non-discriminatory environment to pursue education or gain employment, the consequences reverberate throughout their lives, denying them the choice and freedom we take for granted.”
–Amnesty International’s Ambassador of Conscience Award Speech
Mandela sought such emancipation through both legal and nonprofit means. He introduced free pre-natal and post-natal care in the public health system while president. Even after he left office, he continued to work alongside Graca Machel, his wife, with nonprofit organizations to further women’s rights
“I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
–Speech from the Dock (1964)
“For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”
–Long Walk to Freedom
Mandela made dramatic leaps forward and left behind a legacy that will forever impact South African citizens and the world. Mandela understood that a champion of human rights could not, and cannot, leave anyone behind. To care about human rights is to care about ALL human rights because oppression will always work to perpetuate other forms of oppression. While our words may not properly honor him, our actions just might. As we progress forward, we should remember the wisdom we were lucky enough to be left with and apply it in our activism, our consciousness, and our lives.