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Nelson Mandela Was Inspiration For D.C., Local Leaders

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The Nelson Mandela statue in front of the South African embassy on the night of his death.
Patrick Madden
The Nelson Mandela statue in front of the South African embassy on the night of his death.

People in the D.C. region and across the world are mourning the loss of former South African president Nelson Mandela, who died Thursday at the age of 95. Mandela has been an inspiration for in the District for decades.

Immediately after news of his death was made public, people began showing up at the South African embassy on Massachusetts Ave NW. With tears streaming down their faces, people gathered to pay their respects to the fallen leader.

At one point, they opened up the gates to let mourners drop flowers and candles in front of the statue of Mandela.

Local leaders react

Elected officials in the region, including the mayor, were quick to pay their respects.

"His astute diplomacy, his tireless dedication to justice and his deep commitment to non-violent resistance and reconciliation laid the foundation for countless leaders worldwide," Gray said. "Nelson Mandela’s profound legacy will forever inspire all who fight for human rights and peace around the globe."

"He’s been honored and thanked many times, including receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, but it can never be enough," said Councilman Phil Mendelson.

D.C. Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton said Mandela's legacy will continue to live on.

"What he has done is to inspire movements around the world — well beyond our own country — and to inspire leaders around the world to understand how leaders around the world are to behave," Norton said.

Mandela's legacy lasts in D.C.

Mandela's dedication to the anti-Apartheid movement inspired people around the world to push for civil rights in South Africa, but that effort was especially pronounced in D.C. In 1985, thousands of people gathered in front of the South African embassy to show solidarity with Mandela in the fight to end Apartheid.

Cecelie Counts helped organized those protests, and says she had no idea what kind of impact those protests would have.

"I'm just glad we were able to see Nelson Mandela walk out of prison, be elected president, as somebody said today, it was as if Martin Luther King hadn't been killed but had been elected the first black president," Counts says.

One father who was visiting the South African embassy Thursday evening with his two young boys had his son raise his fist like the statue to Mandela that was dedicated in September on the site of those protests. The bronze statue is 10-feet tall, with Mandela pumping his fist in the air.

The statue will actually stands outside the embassy fence, symbolizing Mandela's first steps out of prison. It's also slightly off-center — marking a place where anti-Apartheid protesters gathered in Washington in the mid-1980s.

"I count this among the great protests of my life," says D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton. "I count it among the protests that have produced legislation, the 1986 anti apartheid law, which brought sanctions against the South African government and ultimately brought it to its knees."

The statue was created by South African sculptor Jean Doyle. It's an exact replica of her statue outside the prison where Mandela was released after 27 years in captivity.

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