IN MEMORIAM: ALDRIN BONILLA, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR OF CUNY IN THE HEIGHTS, REFLECTS ON HIS TIME WITH NELSON MANDELA

December 12, 2013 | Hostos Community College

For a young Dominican-American man born and raised in Washington Heights to be granted United Nations credentials on behalf of the African National Congress, and serve as an occasional over-glorified errand boy for Madiba, in the minds of most I was rather an unlikely prospect.

But there I was, a Dominican man witnessing the historic negotiations, election and inauguration of South Africa’s first black president.

It all seems like a dream now, but around this time some 22 years ago I felt that I was the luckiest person alive. I was awestruck and humbled to be sitting next to a real hero, an international symbol of freedom, the 20th century’s most inspirational champion against inhumanity, racial discrimination and intolerance of all stripes.

I worked for the African National Congress Observer Mission to the United Nations for nearly three years. All told, my personal time with Nelson Mandela was not more than five or six days, divided between New York City, Johannesburg and Pretoria.

However, the purpose, impact and significance of that time created an experience I will always cherish and rely upon as a source of strength.  The years between 1992 and 1994 were critical to the successful conclusion of a long revolutionary struggle that ushered in a sustainable and credible democratic government in the post-apartheid era.

Family and friends have asked me to share my reflections of this period. It is hard to put into words, but I will always remember Mandela’s magnetism, fierce moral authority, political leadership, emotional intelligence and enviable discipline. In addition to his charisma and endearing self-deprecating personality, he also had an infectious smile.

Nelson Mandela achieved what seemed impossible. He was the key individual who set the tone, devised the strategy and clear path to end apartheid.  Through his example as peacemaker and proponent of diplomacy, he empowered millions of Africans and taught the world that forgiveness and reconciliation can be more powerful than arms. He built a firm foundation on which to build a new South Africa.  The accounts of how he transformed his jailers by convincing them to believe in the cause of freedom and thereby turned them into trusted friends and allies exemplify the liberating power of truth.

Beyond the magnitude of his accomplishments, my most vivid memories are not of Mandela the freedom fighter, Nobel Peace Prize-winner and statesman, but rather of an adoring grandfather joyfully playing with his grandchildren at the Helmsley and Plaza hotels between high-level meetings with heads of states, journalists, business people, dignitaries, and U.S. officials.

We are all mourning the loss of Mandela.  I feel truly blessed to have had the opportunity to work for his noble cause of freedom and justice.  I like to think that my work now is inspired and informed by this experience as I strive to help transform lives and create positive social change.

Mandela would often say in speeches, “When a man has done what he considers to be his duty to his people and his country, he can rest in peace”.

The world will rejoice and take solace in the knowledge that Mandela will now rest in peace.

Rest in peace, Brother Madiba. Thank you.

With respect,
Aldrin