They sang for him as he entered the building. It was a song of honor, joyous and unrestrained. And it was for the ears of one man.
On Thursday of last week, the South Africa government celebrated the 20th anniversary of the release from prison of former South African President Nelson Mandela with a special session of its Parliament. Watching from the public gallery was the 91-year-old former president.
Slightly stooped, moving slowly, almost painfully into the Parliament chamber, surrounded by handlers determined to ensure both his safety and and his dignity by offering only the most minimal assistance, he almost fell into his seat. It’s obvious why he makes so few public appearances.
But all around him, people were singing.
“Nelson Mandela!” “Nelson Mandela!” “There is no one like you!”
He sat. Smiled. Waved occasionally to people.
And it brought a lump to my throat. It’s not just because the struggle against apartheid was my earliest awareness of human rights issues in the world.
It’s because they took the time to honor Mandela when he was alive.
Posthumous honors always seem a bit awkward to me. The Hollywood Walk of Fame didn’t give George Harrison a star until eight years after his death. Just a few weeks ago the Grammy Foundation gave Michael Jackson a lifetime achievement award in 2010. And Negro League great Buck O’Neil, who for reasons which still defy explanation, missed election to the Baseball Hall of Fame by one vote, had a statue placed in the hall and an award created in his honor — two years after his death.
What is the urge behind the posthumous award? Perhaps it’s better to give the award posthumously than to not give it at all. But I can’t help thinking that many of these words ought to have been said for the benefit of the individual while alive.
Perhaps people like Jackson, Harrison and O’Neil aren’t the best examples. Each received numerous awards and recognitions in their own lifetime.
But not everyone is a superstar. Not everyone gets the chance for any sort of spotlight.
So Mandela’s appearance is a good reminder to honor the people in our lives while they’re still with us.