Confined in a 5-foot-tall cell, he converted it into a classroom. Deprived of tools, he used his hands to dig a garden. Denied fertilizer, he ground up bones to create a bounty.
And removed from his life, locked up for 27 unjust years, Nelson Mandela shared the vegetables he grew with his jailers.
Bigger than life, the South African leader’s invincible spirit inspired millions and freed a nation of people. But Mandela the man was not an otherworldly being.
Welcomed into his home, and meeting and speaking with him on three occasions, Mandela was “witty” and “warm,” recalled the Rev. Amos C. Brown, chief of the San Francisco chapter of the NAACP. Brown last met with Mandela on a trip to South Africa with the Rev. Jesse Jackson in 2001.
“He was not a distant man,” said Brown, speaking Thursday in the office of the Third Baptist Church on McAllister Street in the Western Addition. “He was very personable.”
Still, “he had a presence,” Brown added. “When he came into the room, there was a hush. You wanted to be around him. You could feel it in the energy he emitted.”
Physically, California — which Mandela visited in 1990, finishing a tour of the U.S. at an Oakland Coliseum packed with 58,000 people — is not unlike South Africa, Brown says. Cape Town has hills like San Francisco, and Johannesburg is in a valley like Los Angeles.
But, “San Francisco is not that inclusive, fair and just society we claim it to be,” Brown said. “It’s greed that causes all this conflict in the world. And he [Mandela] wanted to share.”
It was Mandela who prevented conflict between the newly empowered black majority in South Africa and their former oppressors, noted Brown.
“World leaders should build a shrine to Nelson Mandela,” Brown said, “and go and sit and reflect on the policies they adopt that destroy life, that deny equality of opportunity and keep people from having three square meals a day, health care, quality education and a court system with justice.”
In his own life, Brown used Mandela’s example to recover from a debilitating stroke.
“When you have the great schoolmasters and mentors like Mr. Mandela,” Brown said, “you turn out alright. You can do what appears to be impossible.”
Local leaders react to death of Nelson Mandela
Mayor Ed Lee:
“His life has been an inspiration to all who are helping change the world for the better, and his legacy has a profound impact in our city and our residents. We must follow in his footsteps and take action for what is right and inspire that kind of change every day in our own lives.”
District Attorney George Gascón:
“Nelson Mandela showed us all that you only need to be armed with compassion when fighting for equality, freedom and justice.”
State Sen. Leland Yee:
“He inspired countless people around the world by insisting that all people were entitled to a voice in how their government works. His life stands as a reminder that our rights must be fought for, but also that they are attainable.”
Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom:
“Like Moses before him, Nelson Mandela led his country out of the chains of oppression and ushered in a new era of humanity for all of South Africa. Today the heavens have a bright new star whose shining example is a light by which we all can walk the course of life.”
California Attorney General Kamala Harris:
“He is a hero who led with grace and compassion. His spirit will live on in the hearts and minds of those who continue the fight for justice.”
Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-S.F.:
“Nelson Mandela once said that ‘courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it.’ His life is the affirmation of this statement: a story of courage, a triumph over fear, a whole-hearted faith in the power, promise, and possibility of the human spirit.”