From humble roots growing up in a rural village in colonial South Africa, he rose to become one of the greatest statesman of the 20th century. As he celebrates his 95th birthday, we reflect on an extraordinary model of service, sacrifice and hope. Nelson Mandela – Madiba by his original tribal name – is the embodiment of the history of his people, and the face of resilience, courage, and reconciliation.
His dedication to the right of self-determination for the people of South Africa was ever tempered with warmth, self-effacing humor and compassion, and his vision inspired our own President to lead a new generation of voters to have faith that yes, we can change our future. As he remains in the hospital, fighting for his life, the whole world is united not only in our well-wishes but in our gratitude. Mandela’s life is his legacy, and his accomplishments, and the grace with which he achieved them, will serve as his monument.
Committing his life to the self-determination of South Africa’s people , Mandela ran afoul of the country’s government by planning boycotts and strikes against its apartheid policies. Arrested repeatedly, he was eventually tried for treason and sentenced to life in prison. Mandela responded with dedication to equality, as he stated while on trial in 1964 that, “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 needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
27 years of incarceration would have expected bitterness and retribution, but Mandela, in an example that leaders in nations with long histories of democratic life – including our own – would do well to emulate, rose above revenge and aspired to the common good. While incarcerated, Mandela worked to bring together the African National Congress and the discriminatory government who imprisoned him, ultimately bringing an end to apartheid. Following his release, Mandela would go on to serve as the first democratically-elected president of South Africa. This was possible because he left his enmity behind. He wrote, “as I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.”
His example has lifted not only South Africa, but numerous other African nations, many of which now are led by democratic governments. When Mandela walked out of prison in 1990, there were fewer than ten countries who held elections. Today, the vast majority of African countries hold elections and there is a dedicated commitment to democratic reform.
South Africa had fewer advantages than many countries that have fallen far short of their democratic potential. But Mandela’s sense of responsibility would not allow the country to backslide; he personally bore the honor of the nation and inspired his countrymen to do the same, writing “we can change the world and make it a better place. It is in your hands to make a difference.”
Africa still has a long way to go, but things are better because of the example Mandela set. “It always seems impossible,” he said. “Until it’s done.”
This week, we celebrate Nelson Mandela’s life and legacy. Mandela’s successes were never his alone, but a triumph of his people, and in a sense, a triumph of all humanity.