Though not even nearly as enduring as the battles fought by the man after whom the Mandela Freedom Park is named, the struggle to locate and construct it required grit and determination borrowed from that world recognized tower of strength.
Amidst a fanfare of lively, throbbing African drumming and music, the park was opened to tributes to the worldwide struggle of black people symbolized by the battles for human rights and equality and the healing unifying touch of the man whose name given at birth was Rolihlahla but was later given the name Nelson at school to suit the tongues and tastes of colonials.
During a three-hour ceremony which included libations and invocation of the outstanding ancestors of the struggle for freedom, University of the West Indies Vice-Chancellor Sir Hilary Beckles spoke to obstacles placed in the way of those determined to find a fitting monument to the late Madiba – Nelson Mandela’s clan name.
Not for the first time, Sir Hilary spoke of the entrenched culture of prejudice and discrimination that still grips Barbados and which served as the barrier to placement of a permanent tribute to Mandela.
He recalled Madiba’s walk from jail on February, 11, 1990.
“Those of us who watched those first few steps, for us they were longer than the eight weeks a slave ship took to reach Barbados.
“Those eight weeks across the Atlantic that brought 600,000 Africans to this island, the pain of those weeks was reflected in each step he took.”
Sir Hilary pointed out that the emotional build-up among Barbadians led to a 15,000-strong rally at Farley Hill.
“For me, it was the largest gathering I have ever attended in Barbados outside of Kensington Oval.”
Within the rejoicing punctuated by singing and dancing, he said “the people rose up and asked that the Farley Hill Park be renamed the Nelson Mandela Freedom Park”.
Beckles saw no issue with the request then, because it came from the descendants of people who constituted the “first slave society” of the world, and they were asking only for “the renaming of a land that was a slave plantation – a place where thousands of Africans had been enslaved and died”.
“We thought it appropriate,” he said. “The powers that be in our society, the elites in our society did not think this a good idea, and so the concept, the rising of the people, was quietly put asunder.”
Beckles’ retelling last night of events over a decade and a half ago carried a much more civil tone than his expressions two years earlier during a lecture presentation.
“There was still a perception on this island that Nelson Mandela was a terrorist and to associate with his memory and his history and his cause was a backward step, and so we could not get political parties to come on board and join in this celebration of Nelson Mandela,” he had said in February 2015.
In his civility adopted to suit the moment last night, Beckles simply said that the grassroots movement’s quest for a place for Mandela in Barbados did not give up.
“You do not give up on the brother who gave 27 years for you. You cannot give up on a man, a brother, a husband, a father who gave his life for you. And so we marked the time. We planned the moment. We reflected on the hour. Tonight, this year 2017, is 27 years of Mandela’s freedom; 27 years in prison and now tonight 27 years of freedom.
“We do not believe in coincidences. We considered this day, planned this moment, in order to illustrate that those reactionary, racist, anti-human, anti-democratic values in our society must never prevail. We chose this moment as the most powerful symbol you can imagine, 27 years since 27 years,” Sir Hilary said.
Prime Minister Freundel Stuart, in his address, said “these are not battles that are fought and won once for all”.
“These are battles that have to be fought and won over day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, because at the heart of life is not registering gains only, but, more importantly, determining how we are going to secure those gains.”
Noting the splendor of the Mandela Freedom Park, he said that because of the need to continue battling, “it is important that when we come here, not just come here for a walk in the park but come here to renew our covenant with the obligations that history and life impose on us”.
Madiba’s eldest granddaughter, Ndileka Mandela, advised: “In your own way, invoke the spirit of the ancestors . . . These are the people that lived for social cohesion, social justice, humility, Ubuntu – a symbol of hope”.
She went on to warn that such summons must be taken seriously because, “when you invoke spirits of the ancestors, in my culture, you have to live up to their legacy, because there is hell to play if you do not do that”.