July 18, 2011 is Nelson Mandela's 93rd birthday. A cause for celebration, this is a day to remember and honor the world-changing work of the former President of South Africa, who was a powerful political prisoner and freedom fighter.
In October 2006, I was part of a delegation of artists and activists who visited South Africa at the request of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, to celebrate his 75th birthday. We landed in Cape Town and were given a tour of Robben Island by the politician, author and former political prisoner with Mr. Mandela, Ahmed Kathrada. My son, Salvador, opened Mandela's cell with a large metal key, and in small groups, we stood where the wise leader had been imprisoned many of the 27 years he was incarcerated.
I was in awe looking at the thin woolen mat on the floor that he slept on each night for fourteen years before prisoners were given cots, and the small barred window high in the wall through which he viewed free citizens moving to and fro. Mandela writes of being transferred to Robben Island: "I hate being moved from one prison to another. It involves much inconvenience and degrading treatment. One is handcuffed and sometimes even manacled, and often it involves being exposed to prison officials and members of the public at each stop at different prisons en route while one is dressed in the humiliating prison outfit." ('Conversations with Myself').
Prisoners on Robben Island endured relentlessly brutal days, and Mr. Mandela and his comrades worked in a lime quarry in blistering heat and freezing cold, or hammered stones in the courtyard for hours without a break. The light bulbs in their cells were never turned off.
In direct contrast to Mr. Mandela's prison cell, our delegation was graced with a private meeting with the father of South Africa at the Mandela Foundation in Johannesburg. In groups of three or four, we sat beside the great leader and he asked us questions about America and our lives. I cherish a photo I have of Mr. Mandela, his head thrown back in laughter, me on his left side, smiling with all my heart.
The beloved South African elders -- Mr. Mandela, Archbishop Tutu, Ahmed Kathrada, Barbara Hogan, and Mama Albertina Sisulu -- have given me powerful examples of creating dreams and goals in life without giving up or surrendering to suffering, and keeping a forward movement in resisting violence and oppression. Their work and words encourage me to keep open the doors of inspiration and strength, and allow no one authority over my heart's vision. In 'Long Walk to Freedom,' Mr. Mandela writes, "...to be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others."
In November 2009, the UN General Assembly formally declared July 18 to be Mandela Day. Nelson Mandela has given 67 years of his life fighting for the rights of humanity and the Mandela Day Campaign in South Africa is reaching out to people worldwide to request that every July 18th, we give 67 minutes of our time to be of service to expand Mr. Mandela's vision. Whether it is supporting a chosen charity or serving in local communities, we are encouraged to make a contribution to the well-being of society.
Please share with me how you give your time, and I will share how I spend my 67 minutes for my beloved Madiba.
Deborah Santana is a philanthropist, a supporter of peace and social justice, and the author of the memoir 'Space Between The Stars: My Journey to an Open Heart.' Deborah founded Do a Little, a nonprofit whose mission is to support women in the areas of health, education, and happiness. To find out more about her life and work, read her blog on Red Room.