“May your choices reflect your hopes, not your fears.” – Nelson Mandela

I had the great pleasure of serving on the advisory committee for the Minnesota Orchestra’s Music for Mandela celebration that took place in Minneapolis and South Africa.

The concert and programs paid tribute to Nobel Prize-winning human rights advocate Nelson Mandela on his centenary; a man who is the embodiment of a purpose driven leader.

This project, led by Minnesota Orchestra conductor Osmo Vänskä, board chair Marylyn Carlson Nelson and President Kevin Smith, positioned the musicians, the Minnesota Chorale and patrons like me as global cultural ambassadors in a time where as a society we are seeking understanding and yearning to find things that unite us not separate and divide us.

It was an honor to meet and hear personal reflections from Mandela’s eldest daughter, Makaziwe Mandela, as well as Anant Singh, a preeminent South African film producer of “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” and South African Consul General Phumzile Mazibuko in the Twin Cities. The free public programs and concerts were a perfect sendoff to the orchestra’s five-city tour in South Africa. My husband Bill and I were so inspired that we decided to make the South African tour our family vacation.

The tour included powerful performances and experiences in Cape Town, Durban, Pretoria, Soweto and Johannesburg. I wasn’t fully prepared for the emotional roller coaster that would ensue. I tried to post something simple on Instagram daily as a way to process and share the learning journey.

The concerts combined the talents of the Minnesota Orchestra and the Minnesota Chorale with South African composers and musicians celebrating the role art and culture play in creating empathy and understanding. Nelson Mandela said, “Music is a great blessing. It has the power to elevate and liberate us. It sets people free to dream. It can unite us to sing with one voice.”

It was wonderful to see the Orchestra truly engage in the community playing side by side for example with the South African National Youth Orchestra (SANYO). These young musicians ranged in age between 13 and 25 years old and benefitted from the opportunity for instruction by world class musicians. These young people also had extraordinary stories and experiences that they shared reminding us that we all have something to teach and learn. I absolutely loved the opportunity to meet and interact with SANYO musicians in Pretoria and to meet high school students at the concert in Soweto at the historic Regina Mundi Church, which was a central gathering space during and after the anti-apartheid struggle.

The Soweto concert broadcast on Minnesota Public Radio was glorious. The Minnesota Orchestra, the Minnesota Chorale, The South Africa Gauteng Choristers, the community gathered in this sacred place referred to as the “people’s cathedral” was heavenly.

The young people I met throughout the tour were generous in sharing their personal stories and extremely curious about life in America. Though admitting they had no clue where Minnesota was, they were curious about my educational background, what it was like being a professional Black woman, if there were issues of violence against women in the U.S. as is the case in South Africa, and so much more. Each moment with them also offered an opportunity to be fully present, listening and where possible providing albeit brief mentorship, encouragement and support.

From the youth to elders like the former Robben Island prisoner who led our tour of this infamous prison where Nelson Mandela served 18 of his 27 years in prison, I felt a profound connection to my ancestors, which is a seminal part of the African experience.

Apartheid was an institutional system and policy of segregation and discrimination that formally ended in 1994. South Africa is still on its “Long Walk to Freedom” toward equality, though I would suggest so are we with parallels in areas like race, gender parity, education, housing, health and economic inclusion.

My emotions fluctuated throughout the tour – saddened and angry by man’s inhumanity – yet buoyed by the power of the human spirit to triumph over adversity in pursuit of freedom, equality and justice.

Nelson Mandela and the other courageous men, women and youth that fought to end apartheid and reconcile their country provide for a connection between hope and intentional action that can lead to long term sustainable change.

Bravo to the Minnesota Orchestra “Music for Mandela” celebration for challenging me and all of us to find and live our inner Mandela in service of the greater good.

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