It strangely appropriate that I write these reflections late on February 10 th . Twenty-eight years ago this very night I stayed up drafting my poem Testament for The First Accused: Nelson Mandela for the Twenty-Seven Years. The announcement of Mandela’s imminent release impelled me try to document what that twenty-seven years had actually meant. When he passed away in December 2013 it seems no exaggeration to say the whole world mourned and again reflected on the meaning of his life. We were no exception at Rutgers University where Mandela’s legacy meant much to us as in the 1980s our sustained anti-apartheid protests made us the first full divestment Public University and State in the USA. My contribution to our memorials was to perform my poem. What struck me those days of preparation was the dissonance between the importance of “Mandela” the iconic political prisoner of the generation of we who had demonstrated so hard for his release, and the incredulity of our passion to the younger generation of students for whom, as one explained, “he has always been President Mandela”. Of course: Freshmen the year Mandela passed away were after all born the year after he was elected President. In their conscious lives he was not so much President as the former President and distinguished international statesman. Such is the force of time and its transformations of meaning. I am of that generation for whom nothing about Mandela’s life or passing could eclipse his release from jail on February 11th 1990. To us he was always the world’s most significant political prisoner. That twenty-seven years about which our students already knew so little represented our whole lives: my life time to that date, the lifetime of my brothers and sisters and fellow students and activists, and the childhoods of our children; all those of who had kept vigilance through the years — not to speak of what they had meant to Mandela himself, his family, and his colleagues and fellow prisoners. In 1990 and in 2013 I cast my mind back in an exercise of remembrance, and the process was a wake keeping for my childhood and youth. The incidents I recalled were the actions of those struggling for his release, struggling for our many liberations the world over, including the cause that he had come to symbolize. For myself the enduring image is not simply the sight of his raised fist of welcome to greet a waiting world, but also and first, the poster of his face behind the severed bars that turn into candles; enduring signs of a struggle which continues, and a hope for freedom, which never dies.
The announcement of Mandela’s imminent release impelled me try to document what that twenty-seven years had actually meant