As I write this, Nelson Mandela is in critical condition, ailing from the tuberculosis he contracted while in prison. To this generation of young people, the mention of his name only conjures up lessons learned in their 10th grade history books. “I think he was some leader in Africa, and he won some peace prize, right?”
Well, yeah, but for an entire generation of activists fighting injustice, for a country of people forever on the bottom seeking a way to freedom, and even an entire world desperately searching for a real-life Hero to believe in, Nelson Mandela was so much more. (For those wanting a brief bio of Mandela’s life, see the link to the right.)
The 80’s were when I truly opened my eyes to all that was going on in the world. While I was involved in many social causes, it was the issue of racism, and its most glaring poster child Apartheid, to which I devoted most of my energies. I marched in protest parades. I spoke at rallies. On my university campus, I built replicas of shanties (the ramshackle houses in which most non-whites were forced to live) to draw awareness to the plight of Black South Africans. I helped lead sit-ins at my university president’s office decrying my school’s investment in companies doing business in South Africa. I saw it as my mission in life to stop this institutionalized injustice of one skin color over another, and I was willing to yell long after my voice had given out in order to see this happen.
While I fought this cause in the name of the millions of Black South Africans left powerless under the authoritarian boot of Apartheid, I was also very clear that these millions of names could be synthesized into one person: Nelson Mandela. Jailed for over 25 years. His face literally was not seen by the public that entire time. Yet his face was the symbol of the injustice. His words gave voice to our passion: “I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if need be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” His indomitable spirit, the one that kept him alive all those years while locked in a cell, lifted ours. We would not give up because we knew that he wouldn’t give up!
When Mandela became President of South Africa, he governed with a compassionate love for all his people, Black and White. In forming his coalition government, Mandela went out of his way to include former Apartheid-era politicians. He helped form the Truth and Reconciliation Committee, to heal the wounds of perpetrators and victims from the reign of Apartheid. As a means of uniting his country through sport, Mandela inspired the South African Rugby team to win the 1995 World Cup. Most impressive to me was that even though he could have easily won a second term as president, Mandela humbly retired from public office, feeling it to be better for himself and his country to do so.
I will cry when Nelson Mandela dies. I will miss him, all that he was and all that he represented. Then I will dance and sing in soaring appreciation for all that he taught me about living, forgiving, and loving. Then I will live that example for my family, for you, for me, and the entire world.
May we all be Nelson Mandela!