When I heard that Nelson Mandela had died, I tweeted, “Long walk to freedom—Mandela was in 27 years in prison, but didn’t give up. LGBT Africans, our walk is long but freedom is coming tomorrow.”
That was when I remembered my first visit to Robben Island, in 2003.
During our tour, we were shown the pile of stones that political prisoners broke daily. We then entered the prison cell in which Nelson Mandela spent 18 years. While my friends rushed to take photos of cell #5, I couldn’t bring myself to do so. I may regret that someday, but it would have felt to me like playing at being Mandela – who I am not and will never be. Mandela was an icon, who never lost hope in humanity—something most of us find impossible.
As we headed back to Cape Town, surrounded by the lovely waters, I spent my time wondering how Nelson Mandela remained hopeful in the face of the seemingly impossible. Since my visit to Robben Island, I have learned that freedom is not something that comes easily—people have to fight for it and, sometimes, many have to die for it. I began to make sense of his book, Long Walk to Freedom. I came to realize that freedom is a long journey travelled not by the strong, but rather by the determined. It took Nelson Mandela more than 27 years to secure freedom for himself and for so many others.
Of course, many people walked on that journey with Mandela. Steve Bantu Biko, Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe, and Hector Pieterson are among the many South Africans who died and inspired Mandela to continue the walk to freedom. These individuals were ordinary people, about whom most of the world knows very little. Their sacrifices inspired Mandela not only to continue the journey, but also to carry their dreams with him. That day of freedom finally came, and with cameras broadcasting across the world, Nelson Mandela left prison. He later became that country’s first democratically leader as well as its first Black president.
Mandela’s vision extended to all those who continue to pursue long walks to freedom. Mandela championed the human rights of all people, whether Black, White, straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or intersex. He lived to see the day when South Africa became the first African country to make discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation illegal and began allowing same-sex marriages. The African National Congress’ (ANC) outspoken support for non-discrimination against sexual minorities resulted from the courageous, visible leadership of LGBTQ people in the anti-apartheid struggle and their principled challenges to the movement’s leadership.
Today, amid state sponsored violence, religiously sanctioned persecutions, and an apparent lack of rule of law, many African sexual minorities are now made to believe their freedom will never come. But is Mandela’s journey over? I don’t think so—the journey to freedom continues. To me, Mandela’s legacy is simply this: “No oppression in any form will last forever.”
“Freedom is coming tomorrow”—we cannot give up. Mandela was imprisoned for demanding equality for all people, regardless of race. We, too, we are demanding equality for all people, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. For both the many sexual minorities who walked alongside Mandela and for all of us walking now, these struggles for freedom and justice are chapters of an interconnected, interrelated journey.
We will continue to suffer casualties along our walk to freedom. But our fallen sisters and brothers—Duduzile Zozo and Noxolo Nogwaza of South Africa, David Kato of Uganda, Maurice Mjomba of Tanzania, Eric Ohena Lembembe of Cameroon, among many others—did not die in vain. Rather than retreating in despair, may their sacrifices inspire us to walk again tomorrow. As it is said, “If something is not worth dying for, it is not worth fighting for.” If we fear demonization, prisons, or death, we won’t get our freedom.
And ultimately, when we get our freedom, are we going to be like Nelson Mandela, willing to forgive and reconcile with the very people who persecuted and killed us? Tata Mandela, as you join our ancestors, inspire us to continue that long walk to freedom, which you courageously made in the name of human rights of all God’s people.