Civil rights activist Nelson Mandela visited Minneapolis for two days beginning Monday to speak to local activists about apartheid, freedom and racial inequality.
On Monday evening, the former South African president accepted a Lifetime Achievement Award at the NAACP 2000 Freedom Fund Banquet for his work to end racial inequality.
He then accepted a contribution from the Minnesota business community on Tuesday to fund a monument at Robben Island — the political prison Mandela remained exiled in for 27 years.
The crowd erupted in laughter when Mandela preempted questions about the presidential election. “Both the Democrats and Republicans gave us unqualified support and so it is difficult to make a statement that might not be respected by members of both parties,” Mandela said.
In the struggle to end apartheid, Mandela acknowledged the support and solidarity from blacks in the United States, who shared similar suffering and dreams of freedom.
“The NAACP served to remind us that there were others like ourselves fighting against the primitive practices of racial discrimination,” Mandela said. “It inspired us to know that we were not alone.”
Mandela proudly stated, “South Africa has succeeded marvelously. We have legislated for the de-racialization of our society in the work place and at school.”
Despite the progress, he noted his continual shock at the evidence of racism that persists. He said his country recognizes it has a way to go, but “reconciliation is not cheap or facile. Never give up hope.”
The event examined the continuing need to fight racism.
“The fires of hope turn rage and grief for injustices into courage to fight for real change,” said Minneapolis Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton.
Frank Humphrey III, a member of the NAACP Board of Directors, spoke on the critical need for the NAACP. He reminded the audience that people must still resolve to live together and that inequalities in housing, education and employment still exist.
Mandela received a ceremonial pipe from the NAACP’s Minnesota chapter to honor his life’s work to end apartheid. The pipe is a symbol for establishing relationships.
The Minnesota business community donated an undisclosed amount to help fund the “Nelson Mandela Gateway to Robben Island,” which includes a museum and monument.
Douglas Leatherdale, chief executive of The St. Paul Companies, said the businesses of Minnesota are making a commitment to Mandela so the gateway stands as a reminder that democracy, freedom and hope prevail.
Mandela spent 27 years as a prisoner at Robben Island after he was convicted of illegally exiting South Africa and incitement to strike. Mandela received a life sentence. Released in 1991, he became the first black president of South Africa in 1994.
Fellow freedom fighter and Robben Island political prisoner Ahmed Kathrada said, “While we will not forget the brutality of apartheid, we will not want Robben Island to be a monument to our hardship and suffering. We would want Robben Island to be a monument reflecting the triumph of the human spirit against the forces of evil.”
Kathrada said Robben Island symbolizes all political prisons.
“Robben Island is one place of suffering,” he said. “It was tough but we knew our colleagues were having it worse.”
He said the museum and monument should encourage people to visit the prison and learn about its history.
“Many people were sent there and the government saw the freedom fighters as lepers to be taken away from society,” Mandela said.
After Mandela spoke, activist Clyde Bellecort rushed toward him and said the Native American community was shocked it was not invited to the event where the ceremonial pipe was given to Mandela.
Bellecort told Mandela of the suffering his people have felt and asked him to help free Leonard Peltier. Peltier has been imprisoned since a 1970s FBI shooting, where he allegedly killed an agent. He has been convicted of murder.