Happy Birthday, Madiba! Icons reflect on Mandela’s 92nd

Nelson Mandela, who is affectionately known as Madiba, turns 92 on Sunday, July 18th. On any day one can reflect on the storied life of this world icon, but it’s particularly poignant to do so on his day of birth because he’s given life to the movements and moments which have inspired people around the globe.

February 11, 2010 marked 20 years since Mandela was released from prison after serving 27 years. Even before prison, Mandela had worked tirelessly for the rights of South African people who lived under the brutal policy of apartheid.

theGRIO SLIDESHOW: Images of Mandela through the years>

After being released from prison instead of resting on his laurels he continued to fight. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993 along with F.W. de Klerk and on May 10, 1994 Mandela was inaugurated as the president of South Africa.

Mandela’s legacy has not only affected South Africans but the entire international community. The impact of his life’s work can be seen from those having served in office to some of the biggest stars in Hollywood who have been humbled by him. A few notable people took time to share their fondest memories of Mandela with theGrio.


Academy award-winning actor Morgan Freeman who played Nelson Mandela in 2009’s Invictus shares his memories of first meeting Nelson Mandela and why he resonates in our hearts and minds.

I first met him at his home in Johannesburg after he’d told the SA press, in response to the question, that if his book ever became a movie he wanted me to play him. It was a very low key, private meeting over tea, during which I told him if I was to play him I needed access so I could get to know him. He agreed.

Why he resonates in our hearts and minds….

Because of the time he spent as a political prisoner and still exemplifies those qualities of courage, compassion, and generosity of spirit to which we all respond.


Maya Angelou, an American legend herself shares with us when she first met Nelson Mandela and why he remains a hero to the world:

When I first met him I was living in Cairo and I was married to a South African freedom fighter who was with the Pan African Congress and Mr. Mandela of course represented the African National Congress. He came to Cairo and came to my house there and it was so wonderful to hear the ANC and the PAC people talking out of the country. There was no animosity. There was no rancor. They talked as brothers in Cairo, Egypt and it was so wonderful to see that.

I do know that he told Charlayne Hunter-Gault when she went to see him at Robben Island that someone had gotten my books into him and so he was able to read as my books came out quite a lot about the African American and about the United States and that was really good to hear. He’s one of the great heroes of our world and I loved the fact that I can be of use, and to be it something of mine was of use to Mr. Mandela just pleased me to no end.

He remains one of the heroes of the world of course because of his posture, he stands for fair play for everybody and one of the things that endeared him to me, at his inauguration he invited the guards who had guarded him at Robben Island to be there, present. I thought it was just an amazing experience to see that hugeness of heart, that largeness of being able to forgive, not forget but forgive.


Emmy award-winning and Oscar nominated actress Alfre Woodard shares with us her fight to end apartheid, meeting Mandela for the first time and what he continues to mean to her:

We had all been working tenaciously to break the chokehold of the brutal injustice of Apartheid. In all sectors of societies around the globe, the tireless anti-apartheid movement churned. For years, activists and everyday folks put themselves on the line and held down the fort for their brave and battered brothers and sisters on the southern tip of Africa. Nelson Mandela’s imprisonment as well as that of Sisulu, Mbeki, Kathrada and all the other leaders of the drive for freedom and life in SA became the symbol of the ultimate showdown for justice to power over ignorance and fear and brutality.When the will of the South African people triumphed over that evil, a victory paid for in pain and suffering, the walls of the political prisons fell and Nelson Mandela strode out untouched in the places the captors had hoped to break. He was no longer our cause, our battle cry, our inspiration, our mythical brother/father. He became our Madiba. And we could touch him and know our own potential, our own strength and possibility.

When he first came across to the States and to Los Angeles, Danny Glover and I got to introduce him at a huge gathering at the Coliseum. I was a hopped up teenager on stage, full of electricity, just shouting a praise if introduction, weeping and giggling. You’d thought I’d seen the seas part. He rose serenely from his chair and did that grace stride through a pulsating throng and on to the stage. A roar rose from the middle of the earth and came up through the mouth of that gathering. I stood, shaking on my toes, hyperventilating when Danny leaned into my ear with, “Go ahead, hug the man”. I shot off my feet and into my Madiba, our Madison’s arms and held him for all the mamas and daddys and sistahs and brothas- gone, present, to come. For All the endless nights and days of wanting to touch the solitude and sooth the silence, I held on.

Through the years, I have had the good fortune of being able to touch Madiba often. Every time I am in his presence is a blessing and an awakening. I walk away clearer, smarter, more compassionate. Now, I sit at his feet and try to make him laugh. He does.


David Dinkins was the first (and so far only) African-American to be elected mayor of New York City. Below are his previously published thoughts on Mandela’s first visit to the United States and what he’s given the world.

I recall as if it were yesterday watching, filled with pride, as he descended from the plane at JFK Airport and set foot for the first time on American soil. New York City welcomed him as our own personal champion, and New Yorkers of all races and ethnic groups showered him with ticker-tape in a Canyon of Heroes reserved for the very few. From East New York to East Harlem, freedom-loving people lined the streets, four and five deep, to catch a glimpse as he traveled through the City to Gracie Mansion where he was our guest during his visit to our city.

He has helped us to see the truth with the utmost clarity, has guided us in the path of reconciliation of our differences and, by his example, has given us the courage to let the light of liberty shine through our fears.


Angelique Kidjo is a Grammy award-winning music artist who was born in Benin (West Africa). She shares her thoughts on when Mandela was released from prison and the first time she met him.

When Nelson Mandela was released from prison, I was overwhelmed with joy and tears at the same time. He has proven to the World and to humankind that we are responsible for our choices, no matter the sufferings and the challenges. South Africa could have been turned into a bloody and ugly place but Nelson Mandela was all about forgiveness and togetherness. This lesson should be learned by all leaders of this world.

The first time I met him I felt so special, like a little child meeting her father. He made me feel unique and strong. Desmond Tutu and him are the two people I look up to in everything I try to do for my continent, Africa. Happy Birthday Madiba you are truly my inspiration!


International modeling sensation and philanthropist Naomi Campbell shares her memories of meeting Mandela, his release from prison, why he resonates so strongly in our minds and his legacy.

On meeting him and her fondest memories:

I was blessed to meet Nelson Mandela in 1992 in South Africa and it was a pivotal moment for me. He is an incredible human being and it was through meeting him that I later became involved in his Children Foundation which works to help children who aren’t fortunate to have the luxuries many of us do in this life.

I have so many amazing and fond memories of him and I am fortunate enough to call him my honorary grandfather Madiba. He is an incredible human being who has taught me a lot about life and told me to always have an opinion and speak my mind and to use who we are to help others and not be afraid or ever held back by fear.

There have been some personal and special memories, which I will remember forever.

On his release from prison:

This was a momentous occasion and a real turning point for the whole world, not only the African continent. It symbolized the struggle to freedom not only for him, but for every ethnic minority across the world, it gave us hope.

He showed not only me but also the whole world that no matter the difficulties and struggles you encounter you should always stand up and be heard — he is an incredible man That prevailed.

Why he resonates with people:

He was a leader, an inspiration. He stood up for what he believed and never gave up, even in the face of adversity. Even after 27 years in prison — he still came out and worked to overcome the discrimination that was still so present in the world. He holds the hearts of the people in South Africa for bringing a new life to them. He is someone which I am so blessed to know and spend time with – I am continuously learning from his great wisdom.

What can people learn:

He is a man who has taught, inspired and motivated the whole world – he has broken barriers and shown people that there is hope. People can learn that it is worth standing up for yourself and fighting for what is right.

He is an icon, a leader, a friend and a father.


Platinum recording and Grammy award-winning artist Celine Dion reflects on meeting Nelson Mandela and what he means to her:

It was very emotional meeting Mr. Mandela — meeting with him and my mom, because my mom is my hero and Mr. Mandela is a hero as well.  What he represented for me was three things: He has the strength of a man, the soul of a child, and the heart of a woman, a mother.


The President of the Rainbow/PUSH coalition who saw Mandela just two months ago shares his memories and what today’s leaders like President Obama can learn from the elder statesman:

I was there in South Africa in 1979. I knew of his work then and met with his family members in Soweto. He didn’t get out until 1990 and he had got out that Sunday. I was in Cape Town, one of the first African Americans to meet him at the door when he came to City Hall. He came to City Hall from prison. So I met him you know and that was a huge moment in history to be with him when he got sent out the car into City Hall and gave his first speech. What a big moment. I think the second thing is that he was jailed for twenty-seven years and knocked down walls. President Obama is going across bridges now that the walls have been knocked down.

That was a generation, it was Mandela in jail, and Dr. King in jail, others were; I went to jail today July 16, 1960. But twenty-four years to the day from that jailing for the Democratic Convention in San Francisco, California so you never stop going. Jail in Greenville to the San Francisco convention. Jailed in Birmingham to the Nobel Peace Prize, Dr. King. Mandela jailed to the Nobel Prize and rebuilding a nation. You just take the risk and never stop going forward and have a big vision. That’s one thing that is common with Dr. King and Mandela and President Obama is they have broad vision.

You have to see and make room for everybody under one big tent. Leaders at their worst bring some in and lock some out. Leaders at their best everybody’s in and nobody’s out. Mandela came out of jail looking to redeem and not to reject. Redeem and not revenge, it’s the best have to have the capacity to give, redeem and move on.