The world lost a great man when Nelson Mandela passed. This man was an example of courage and strength of character to many, regardless of ethnic heritage or social standing. His resolve never faltered, carrying him from political prisoner to the architect of post-apartheid South Africa, and a source of great wisdom to us all.
Few people of his stature had such humble beginnings. Rolihlahla “Nelson” Mandela was born July 18th, 1918 in a small village. In 1925 he began primary school. Unable to pronounce his African name, his teacher opted to call him Nelson after British naval hero Admiral Horatio Nelson. Two years later, his father died and he became the ward of the Tembu regent, Paramount Chief Jongintaba Dalindyebo. Hard to believe that this boy would grow to be the man to usher in one of the greatest periods of social reform on the planet.
Most of my young life, I heard news stories about his long incarceration. I remember being impressed with Mr. Mandela’s struggle, being in prison all that time but still hoping for an improvement in his country. Throughout his imprisonment, he urged those working outside to use peaceful means to bring change to the nation. The personal strength of character he possessed despite his horrible treatment was something I admired.
When he was finally released in Feb. 11, 1990, I recall feeling a great sense of hope. I was sure growing up the man would die in prison, his dreams unfulfilled. Instead, he was being released. Sweeping reforms began to take over in one of the strongest bastions of racism. I began to look at the world in a whole new light. I began to feel society could get better, and we could see each other as humans on the same planet rather than be divided by color of skin, nationality, or religious strife.
In 1994, when he was elected president of his homeland, I began to take a hard look at our own nation. South Africa in a few short years was crushing barriers that we still seem to struggle with, even today. South Africa did not morph suddenly into paradise, but under Mandela’s wise and charismatic guidance, the nation made incredible leaps.
So I wondered, why my country, with so much more time to correct social injustice, still wasn’t getting it right? Many would argue our nation evolved more slowly from a much different time. But I look at Mandela’s gentle and resolute way of moving his nation forward toward equality, and I felt really frustrated at where the United States seemed to be standing. It would have been so easy for Mandela, once he came to power, to incite the nation to eradicate their former oppressors. He spent 27 years in jail simply for seeking equality, in horrible conditions. It would have been so simple to exact revenge.
Mandela was better, and smarter, than that. He quietly set a solid example for reconciliation and social equality, many times drawing comparisons to Martin Luther King, Jr, and Mahatma Gandhi. He proved that people can put the past aside and work together for a mutually beneficial future. Even after leaving office, he continued to advocate for civil justice around the world.
With his passing, I now wonder who will lead the efforts to inspire empathy for our fellow humans. I hope the memory of what he stood for and the accomplishments he achieved will continue to drive us forward. I pray that whoever is next to light the way soon steps forward to carry the torch.