By Sen. Rodney Ellis | December 12, 2013 | Houston Chronicle
I recently arrived in South Africa to pay my final respects to one of history’s greatest leaders and freedom fighters, Nelson Mandela. A man of iconic strength, grace, and generosity, Mandela will once again unite the world as thousands upon thousands gather to remember his time with us.
Mandela’s story is well known. Born in South Africa during a time of entrenched racial segregation, he joined other activists and fought for an end to Apartheid rule. Arrested after fighting for basic human rights for his countrymen, Mandela was sentenced to life in prison and endured 27 years captive. After an international campaign calling for his release, he was freed, negotiated the end of Apartheid, and was elected as South Africa’s first black president.
I certainly knew of Mandela before I went to work for Congressman Mickey Leland, but it was there, as Mickey’s chief of staff, that my true appreciation for him began to grow. I worked in the midst of an awakening about America’s need to condemn the system of Apartheid. Mickey was a prominent advocate in the fight against the South African government’s human rights violations, leading boycotts against South African Airways and successfully pushing for congressional override of President Reagan’s veto of economic sanctions against South Africa.
Efforts to join the struggle led by Mandela were also evident in Houston. While I served on the City Council, we passed an ordinance to forbid city contracts with firms that provided goods to the South African powers enforcing racist policies. Once Apartheid ended and international investment began to return, I successfully authored a bill in the state legislature to allow Texas to once again invest state funds in businesses that had financial ties to South Africa.
It’s hard to overstate the effect that Mandela has had on my political perspective. Over the years, I have had the privilege of visiting with him several times, and I cherish each moment. He stood as a shining example of perseverance and true commitment to reconciliation, justice, and equality. His journey from prison to president, changing both a nation and the world, remains an inspiration and the gold standard for all who are committed to public service. That commitment trickles down, too. Through my internship program, Texas has had the pleasure of hosting a number of South African interns, all of whom were moved by Mandela’s leadership to serve the greater good.
His moral compass remains just as relevant today as it was when he was imprisoned almost 50 years ago. As I visit South Africa to pay my respects to the great Madiba, it occurs to me that the only way to truly honor his legacy is to continue his mission by striving to make the goal of opportunity and justice for all a lasting reality. But around the world, and here at home, we often remain too far from that objective.
It is increasingly apparent that inequality of opportunity is the great moral crisis of our time. Here in the land of the free, those at the top are enjoying ever-expanding salaries while the middle class dwindles and a growing number of Americans live at or below the poverty level. In fact, income inequality in the United States is at a historic high, breaking the previous record set in 1928. In the past decade, Texas experienced a 47 percent increase in child poverty, with over a quarter of Texas children now living in poverty.
Only when we look at the structural causes of inequality can we begin to realize that the game often appears rigged. Education at its best should be the great equalizer, but Texas’ public school finance system was recently found unconstitutional due to insufficient funding and inequitable distribution. Justice should be blind, but innocence and guilt in our criminal courts is overwhelmingly dependent on your wealth and ability to afford a private attorney. Tax policies benefiting those on top still riddle our tax code, but efforts to review even their basic effectiveness are met with fierce opposition.
While the image of Mandela that sticks in our minds is grandfatherly and kind, make no mistake: Madiba was a fierce fighter that proclaimed he was willing to give his life for the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons have equal opportunities. That ideal has not yet been achieved, so the struggle does and must continue. He may be gone now, but his vision is as true as ever.