Resident remembers Mandela

ELKINS – Nelson Mandela, the first black president of South Africa, is remembered with fondness and respect by a Belington resident who lived through that nation’s decades-long struggle against apartheid.

Thabo Letsebe, who works in The Inter-Mountain graphics department, said Friday that news of Mandela’s death was bittersweet. He said he was saddened to hear that Mandela had died and yet relieved because he is no longer suffering.

The South African leader, 95, died peacefully at his home in Johannesburg Thursday night. He had been receiving intensive treatment for a lung infection.

Mandela became a warrior in the fight against apartheid in the early 1950s and was imprisoned repeatedly on charges of sedition. In 1962, he was sentenced to life in prison.

Letsebe was born in Johannesburg in 1980, while Mandela was still imprisoned. “Growing up, I heard about him and the whole (anti-apartheid) movement. He was one of many, he was the main leader. He had influence.”

The movement was part of the culture of the times, but it wasn’t discussed in the schools, he said.

He remembers his family being involved in the African National Congress, a political party shaped in part by Mandela’s views, and he remembers the adults attending rallies that he calls “stayaways.” Children were barred from the gatherings because they might be injured during clashes with police.

In 1990, civil unrest and international pressure finally led to Mandela’s release from prison. Letsebe was 10 years old.

Mandela was elected the nation’s president in 1994, and a new Constitution of South Africa was adopted in 1996. He retired in 1999 but remained active nationally and internationally on behalf of various causes.

Letsebe looks back over his own life up to now and thinks it was made possible only because of the freedoms won by Mandela and the people who worked with him.

Letsebe left Johannesburg in 1997, at the age of 17, after being awarded a scholarship to play basketball (center and guard) at Towson Catholic High School in Baltimore.

He graduated, won a basketball scholarship to Goucher College in Baltimore and graduated with a bachelor of arts degree in graphic design.

He worked for Apple for two years and then returned to South Africa to play on the South African national basketball team. He played until 2011, when he married a young woman who was from Belington.

They moved to Belington a short time later, and he began working at the Inter-Mountain three months ago.

Letsebe said he considers Mandela to be a role model. “One of the things I’ve learned from him is being able to put emotion aside and look at a situation as it needs to be, rather than what you want it to be.”

As for Mandela’s legacy, Letsebe believes he will be remembered “as a leader who focused on unifying South Africa and the whole world.

“He was a peacemaker, and he had a forgiving heart. I hope his traditions will continue and peace will prevail.”