The following remarks were delivered at the Washington National Cathedral’s memorial service for Nelson Mandela on December 11, 2013 by Mary Frances Berry, a member of The Leadership Conference Education Fund board of directors and former chairwoman of the United States Commission on Civil Rights. Berry currently serves as the Geraldine R. Segal Professor of American Social Thought and Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania.
Berry also co-founded the Free South Africa Movement (FSAM), a coalition devoted to ending the country’s system of apartheid. FSAM was created amid daily protests outside the South African Embassy, in addition to a sit-in within the embassy following a discussion Berry and others had with the Ambassador about human rights violations in South Africa. Their actions ultimately generated U.S. sanctions against South Africa.
Walter Sisulu said when he first seduced Nelson Mandela into the Revolutionary cause, he was struck by “His demeanour, his warmth … I was looking for people of calibre to fill positions of leadership and he was a godsend to me.” As a young freedom fighter Mandela was brash, often fiery and always passionate and some said given to flamboyance. By the time he was convicted of sabotage, at the end of his trial in April 1964, he did what would have been expected – expressed a fervent willingness to die in the cause of democracy and ending apartheid and he meant it. Instead, sentenced to a fate that in some ways was worse than death – life in confinement – he used those long prison years figuring out how to achieve freedom for his country. He took heart from the growing anti-apartheid protest. And we took heart from him. Not knowing how he looked having only that old photograph, we worried and did everything that came to hand to help free him and his people. We cried on the day of our first arrest at the South African Embassy for days thereafter “Free Nelson Mandela and all others in detention.” He devoted himself to learning the ways of his jailers and in leading and inspiring his fellow political prisoners and when the time came he negotiated their release. As the anti-apartheid struggle continued, he knew change was at hand.
When he was released he was ready, still as warm and engaging as he was on the day he went to prison – his personality intact. But he was wiser and wilier; He had become serene, more thoughtful, strategic and wise. Incarceration is not a boon; it is terrible but he used the time well. He used his time, he did not let time use him.
In tribute to Mandela the imprisoned freedom fighter, on this day in this place devoted to “spiritual harmony, reconciliation among faiths, and compassion” let us call to mind all of those who are incarcerated unjustly and the freedom fighters around the world who suffer in the cause of liberty and democracy. May they have the strength to endure and someday gain their freedom, with personality intact, and may their people may be freed. I think Madiba would like that very much.
Berry is referenced below in WJLA’s video covering the memorial service.