Today is Nelson Mandela’s Birthday: My remembrance of attending his birthday party

by jhilley on July 18, 2013

Mandela's Birthday Cake. Flickr photo by Leeds Tidal Flickr photo by Leeds Tidal

Today is Nelson Mandela’s 95th birthday which he is spending it in hospital.  Twenty five years ago today – on my first day of a year long fellowship at the University of Cape Town – I attended Mandela’s birthday party.  He couldn’t attend as he was in Pollsmoor Prison (having been moved from Robben Island a year earlier).  But hundreds did, packed into a church in Langa Township singing and dancing and clapping as the South African Riot Police encircled the outside of the building ready to storm the church and release tear gas.  It was illegal to acknowledge Mandela’s birthday, even as much as to bake a birthday cake in his honor so the celebratory event quickly became tense.

I remember the great orator Allan Boesak saying to the crowd as he raised Mandela’s birthday cake over his head:  “if you were not willing to accept responsibility for being here today you shouldn’t have come.”  I have thought about those words from time to time and I do so today on Mandela’s birthday.  Living in a time and culture where the common responses are to relinquish responsibility (“it wasn’t me”), or blame others (“it was her”), or observe on the sidelines (“Don’t look at me for answers), Boesak’s challenge to the crowd 25 years ago today is a good challenge for us today.  So, today on Nelson Mandela’s birthday, I am taking note of  the places where I “show up” in the world (family, work, community) and call to mind Boesak’s challenge to us all about “taking responsibility for being here today” in these important arenas of our life:  family, friends, work, community.  Happy Birthday Nelson Mandela for taking responsibility for guiding the formation of a new South Africa out of a terrible past.

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