I was in my 20s, living in Boston, and helping a friend move to a new apartment. Carrying down a box of books, I idly glanced at the volume on top. Then I sat down on the apartment steps, transfixed by what I saw and read.
The book was a chronicle of life in South Africa, its images filmed clandestinely by a black South African photographer. Since 1948, that country had been ruled by an iron-clad system of racial segregation called apartheid. Under this political form of white nationalism, the white minority colonialists subjected the indigenous black population to a near-compete lack of legal protections and political participation.
I had been completely ignorant of this reality. I was shocked by the injustice portrayed in the images, but couldn’t imagine what I, as an individual, could do.
Flash forward to eight years later: walking past a storefront window display in my hometown of Minneapolis, suddenly I focused again on those stark apartheid images. I walked through the door of the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker social justice organization, and came out an hour later a member of the Minnesota Anti-Apartheid Committee. My work in the Committee exposed me to the example and wisdom of many committed activists challenging all forms of oppression and domination.
Foremost among my activist exemplars was Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s black liberation fighter, who was sentenced to life imprisonment by the apartheid authorities for his tireless organizing against the racist system. When he was freed after 27 years of hard labor and periods of solitary confinement, there was jubilation around the world. Upon his release, he did not incite his supporters to revenge, but rather called for calm and reconciliation. A model of principled leadership, he brokered a peaceful dismantling of apartheid, and later shared the Nobel Peace Prize with his former enemy, F.W. deClerk, the last apartheid state president.
My career path took me to the State Department as a Foreign Service, serving at the U.S. Consulate in Durban, a thriving port city on South Africa’s eastern coast. My experiences of living in South Africa for three years affected me deeply, not least the fact the Nelson Mandela had become the first democratically elected president of the Republic of South Africa.
2018 marked 100 years of Nelson Mandela’s birth, with observances endorsed by the United Nations and celebrations in countries around the world. And so I too wanted to bring the centenary celebration to fellow residents in Duluth, where I had moved after retirement. I formed the Nelson Mandela Centenary Committee, and we ordinary citizens carried out a series of events and activities throughout the city—free to the public and involving a range of ages—to highlight in our community Mandela’s courage, vision, and commitment to multiracial democracy.
Today, as Americans, we are experiencing polarization and assaults on freedom that most of us could never have imagined in our beloved country. Apparent setbacks seem more plentiful than victories, and opposition may seem intractable, even invincible. We may wonder if our letter writing, signing petitions, or phoning officials can prevail against these forces. I have learned (and accepted) that the outcomes of one’s efforts may not manifest according to a desired timeline.
But change does happen: I never expected to see the end of apartheid in my lifetime, nor ever dreamed I would be able to represent my country in a free South Africa. The persistent and creative resistance of the South African people, and their supporters around the globe, kept alive Mandela’s dream of a just democracy during his long years of imprisonment. It is a lesson on how ‘people power’ can overcome seemingly insurmountable odds.
Nelson Mandela modeled the discipline and perseverance of one person in the service of freedom. His example inspires and sustains me to this day.
I have walked that long road to freedom…[We] have not taken the final step of our journey, but the first step on a longer and even more difficult road. 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. The true test of our devotion to freedom is just beginning.
— Nelson Mandela (1996)
Gerri Williams lives in Duluth, Minnesota. In May 2022, she received grants from a local community foundation and the Duluth NAACP Black Filmmaker fund to produce a documentary film, “Duluth for Mandela: A Northland Celebration,” about Mandela’s life and impact in her city. To receive updates of the film’s progress, email Gerri at Williard2738@gmail.com