“Our nation has lost its greatest son,” said South African President Jacob Zuma as he announced on South African television that Mandela had passed away at his Johannesburg home. “Nelson Mandela brought us together. And it is together that we will bid him farewell.”
Born in Cape Province on July 18, 1918, Mandela spent 27 years in jail for opposing South Africa’s apartheid-era government until his release in 1990. Mandela was the country’s president from 1994-1999.
South Africa in 1994 became the first country in the world to add a ban on discrimination based on sexual orientation into its constitution.
Mandela in 1994 nominated Edwin Cameron, a gay man with HIV, alongside four others to sit on South Africa’s highest court.
“I became the first openly gay judge in South Africa’s history and, at that time, one of the very few openly gay judges anywhere in the world,” wrote Cameron in an op-ed for the South African website Mambaonline in July that he provided to the Washington Blade. “Mr. Mandela was not only happy to appoint me — he did so with emphatic personal warmth, which he personally expressed to me and to others.”
South African LGBT rights advocate Phumzile Mtetwa also recalled Mandela’s LGBT legacy in an op-ed the South African newspaper Mail and Guardian published in July while the former South African president was in critical condition in a Pretoria hospital for what his doctors described as a recurring lung infection.
Mtetwa noted Mandela was president of the African National Congress in 1993 when it added the extension of rights to LGBT South Africans to its platform. The ANC in 1997 adopted a resolution opposing discrimination based on sexual orientation.
Mtetwa wrote Mandela “became an important icon of the movement” in contrast to Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni and other anti-LGBT African heads of state.
“As a queer activist I will remember uTatu Dalibhunga for the dreams of freedom he symbolized,” Mtetwa said.
Gavin Hayward, editor of Exit, a South African LGBT newspaper, told the Blade from Johannesburg on Friday that LGBT South Africans continue to acknowledge Mandela’s pro-gay legacy. He noted his own interracial relationship would have been banned under Apartheid.
“He was such a great man, with such compassion and selflessness to devote his life to a cause really for the benefit of others,” Hayward told the Blade. “That’s huge and of course I admire him immensely. God knows where the country would have been if we hadn’t had a great man like that around.”
Obama described Mandela as one of the “most influential, courageous and profoundly good human beings that any of us will share time with on this Earth.”
“Through his fierce dignity and unbending will to sacrifice his own freedom for the freedom of others, Madiba transformed South Africa — and moved all of us,” the president said. “His journey from a prisoner to a President embodied the promise that human beings — and countries — can change for the better.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray are among those who also mourned Mandela’s death.
“Nelson Mandela tore down oppression, united a rainbow nation and always walked arm-in-arm with his LGBT brothers and sisters — and with all people — toward freedom,” said Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin in a statement. “Though every man, woman and child who seeks justice around the world mourns this loss, his vision of an equal future lives on undimmed.”
Rev. Nancy Wilson, moderator of the Metropolitan Community Churches, described Mandela as “one of the greatest leaders in history.”
“Because of Nelson Mandela, South Africa became the first country in the world to include constitutional protection for same-gender loving persons,” she said. “As the head of a church with many gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer members in 40 countries, including South Africa, I honor the liberator, Mandela.”