December 10 marked the 20th anniversary of Human Rights Day, the date the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Human Rights Day included a memorial service in Johannesburg for former South African President Nelson Mandela where he was remembered by U.S. President Barack Obama, South African President Jacob Zuma, Cuban President Raul Castro, and others. Former U.S. Presidents Clinton, G.W. Bush and Carter were also in attendance.

Anti-apartheid freedom fighter and former South African President Nelson Mandela died last week at age 95. He dedicated his life fighting the oppression of his people by the whites and was jailed as a political prisoner by the apartheid regime for 27 years. When Mandela became president in 1996, he helped usher in the nation’s new constitution, a document born out of the struggle against racial oppression and a dedication to human rights for all.

Nelson Mandela wrote about the indivisibility and interrelatedness of human rights in his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom: “For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” As Nelson Mandela helped shepherd the constitutional process in South Africa, his ideals about the indivisibility and interrelatedness of human rights came to fruition.

The Bill of Rights of the South African Constitution states, “Everyone is equal before the law and has the right to equal protection and benefit of the law” (Chapter 2, Section 9). Subsection 3 defines this equality:

The state may not unfairly discriminate directly or indirectly against anyone on one or more grounds, including race, gender, sex, pregnancy, marital status, ethnic or social origin, colour, sexual orientation, age, disability, religion, conscience, belief, culture, language and birth.

South Africa became the first nation in the world to include sexual orientation in a Bill of Rights. Much has been written about what lead to this historic action in articles by Phumi Mtetwa, co-founder of the South African National Coalition for Gay and Lesbian Equality (NCGLE) and by Albie Sachs, the Mandela appointed justice at the Constitutional Court of South Africa who wrote the historic 2005 court ruling legalizing same-gender marriage in South Africa.

Albie Sachs

Albie Sachs after the attempt on his life by South African security agents (Photo: Academy of Achievement)

Albie Sachs is a straight, white ally who fought side-by-side with Nelson Mandela and the ANC to liberate South Africa from racial oppression. His biography at the Constitutional Court of South Africa shows the immense sacrifices he made to respect and enhance the freedom of others.

The bulk of his work involved defending people charged under racist statutes and repressive security laws. Many faced the death sentence. He himself was raided by the security police, subjected to banning orders restricting his movement and eventually placed in solitary confinement without trial for two prolonged spells of detention.

In 1966 he went into exile. After spending eleven years studying and teaching law in England he worked for a further eleven years in Mozambique as law professor and legal researcher. In 1988 he was blown up by a bomb placed in his car in Maputo by South African security agents, losing an arm and the sight of an eye.

As More Light Presbyterians working for human rights recognition in our church and society, how do we embody the ideals of Nelson Mandela and Albie Sachs and expand our tent to include the liberation of others? Because human rights are indivisible and interrelated, gender identity and sexual orientation are already naturally intersected with many other struggles.

For example, a recent study by the Movement Advancement Project shows that LGBTQ workers of color are at a significant risk of being unemployed and living in poverty. Forty-five percent of homeless youth on the streets are LGBTQ-identified. As HIV infection rates continue to surge among gay and bisexual men, communities of color are particularly hard hit. While in prison, transgender, gender non-conforming and gay individuals are frequent targets for sexual abuse and other violence. What are the intersections you hold in your heart, and in your work?

As we remember Nelson Mandela today, one of the most significant ways we can grow to embody his commitment to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others is to learn more about his life and struggle against apartheid. Colorlines suggests starting with his autobiography, Long Walk To Freedom with the Amandla! soundtrack as music that embodies the struggle and hope towards freedom.

Mandela’s legacy is a reminder that the walk may be long, but we do not walk this path alone. Human Rights Day is a chance to see that our struggles are indivisible and interrelated. We cannot be free until we are all free.

Check out Colorlines’ essential reading list.

“Bring Him Back Home (Nelson Mandela)” – Hugh Masekela


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