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Meeting Mandela: Scottsburg native recalls life-changing encounter

For Scottsburg native Clara Lumpkin, the Thursday death of anti-apartheid revolutionary, politician, philanthropist and South Africa’s President Nelson Mandela was truly devastating for her. 

“It was very sad to think he would be no more. It was too much for me. I cried for a minute,” she said. “No one else could take his place.”

Having had the opportunity of a lifetime to meet and shake hands with the man who most people wish they would have had a chance to meet, she said the experience was one she will never forget.

“I was very fortunate and blessed to have had the opportunity to meet and shake hands with Mr. Nelson Mandela during his visit to the United States after his release from prison in the 1990s. He left a lasting impression on me that made me want to be a better person,” Lumpkin said. “He had a beautiful spirit and exemplified total forgiveness of his oppressors. He kept his heart open and changed his enemies into friends.”

Lumpkin, who was employed by the AFSCM, AFL-CIO in Washington, D.C. in the 1990s, had the opportunity to meet Mandiba when he visited her workplace to thank those who helped free him.

That brief meeting with Mandela would change her life.

“He made me realize how important it was that all human beings have freedom, justice and dignity,” she said.

During his life, Mandela worked diligently to fight apartheid in South Africa, an effort that landed him in jail for 27 years. 

Upon his release in 1990, Mandela joined negotiations with President F. W. de Klerk to abolish the apartheid and established a multiracial election in 1994 in which he was elected South Africa’s first black president.

“I was joyful, just happy. Some of the people from the job went over to Africa to help observe the balloting,” Lumpkin said.

 He served as president from 1994 to 1999. In his post presidential years, Mandela was an elder statesman who focused on charitable work in combating poverty and HIV/AIDS through the Nelson Mandela Foundation. 

Mandela received more than 250 honors including the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize, the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Soviet Order of Lenin and the Bharat Ratna. 

He is held in high esteem in South Africa and is often referred to as “the father of the nation.”

 Lumpkin said she admired the man who stood for unity.

“He said he was working for a united Africa. He didn’t want it to be black against whites. He wanted everybody to have the same rights and privileges,” Lumpkin added.

 She believes his legacy and contributions will continue to live beyond his death.

 “He freed a people who were oppressed,” she said. “He stood for what he believed in, equality and justice, and he spent 27 years in jail fighting to bring about change. If somebody can do something that great with just the conviction of saying I’m going to deprive myself of my freedom to prove my point that you are wrong, it’s amazing. It made me not want to give in when people put pressure on me. You’ve got to stand for something, or you fall for anything.”

 On Dec. 6 South African President Jacob Zuma announced a national mourning period of 10 days, with the main event being an official memorial service that was held at the FNB Stadium in Johannesburg on Tuesday. He declared Dec. 8 a National Day Of Prayer and Reflection. 

“We call upon all our people to gather in halls, churches, mosques, temples, synagogues and in their homes to pray and hold prayer services and meditation reflecting on the life of Mandiba and his contribution to our country and the world,” he said.

Mandela’s body will lie in state from Wednesday until Friday at the Union Buildings in Pretoria, and a state funeral will be held on Sunday in Qunu.

“The world has lost a great man and a great leader who gave up much to achieve dignity, justice and freedom for all,” Lumpkin said summarizing how she believes Mandela’s death has impacted the world.