Memorializing Mandela

It was sad news this week to learn of Nelson Mandela’s passing.

As the first president of a democratic South Africa, he was the George Washington of his country – a revolutionary who went on to provide stabilizing and unifying leadership as a politician, and then retired to civilian life rather than holding on to power.

He was a man who always seemed larger than life, even while he was still living. This weekend I went to the South African Embassy to pay my respects.

In September, they had just installed a great statue of Mandela out front, visible to all who pass by it on Massachusetts Avenue’s Embassy Row.

Mandela's statue in front of the South African Embassy.
Mandela’s statue in front of the South African Embassy.

Visitors to Washington are often surprised by how many statues and memorials there are for foreign leaders, activists, and artists – not only in front of embassies, but throughout the city.

The Mandela statue stands directly opposite a statue of Winston Churchill, whose hand is outstretched making the “V” for victory sign in front of the British Embassy.

Mandela’s statue has his fist raised – not in anger but in triumph. It’s modeled after another statue that stands near Cape Town in South Africa, capturing Mandela’s first walk into freedom in 1990 after 27 years in prison.

In the District, protests in front of the South African Embassy against apartheid throughout the 1980s helped highlight his unjust imprisonment.

Mandela’s statue was one of the sites that I regretted not being able to see when my friend Heather, a blogger by the name of 2summers, was here for a visit from her new home of South Africa. This week she wrote her own moving and personal tribute to Mandiba on her blog.

There will be a memorial service for Mandela at the National Cathedral this Wednesday, but visitors can go to the South African Embassy and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art to sign a book of condolence and reflect on Mandela’s legacy.

As President Obama said, he belongs now to the ages. But luckily there will always be a place in Washington to remember him.

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