I heard the news of Nelson Mandela’s passing as I was sorting through boxes of possessions collected during my school years in South Africa. Perhaps nothing could have been more appropriate; it is unlikely that any other individual formed those years as much as Madiba did. I never had the privilege of meeting the man, yet his influence over my own life has been vast.
I grew up in a South Africa of equal opportunity. In my second year of primary school the first child of colour was admitted as a fellow pupil. From that day on I never thought twice about sharing my classroom with someone who had a different colour skin to myself. It was irrelevant to me. When you consider the history of South Africa in the lead-up to this time, my sentiment of indifference is quite profound. Older generations would still spend many years battling ingrained apartheid ideology but the transformation had begun. Today, South Africa – while it still faces many challenges – is a country where people are proud of their story of newfound equality and mutual affection. While many fought for this kind of freedom in a land of turmoil, it was Mandela who brought about change through peace and reconciliation.
What I truly love about Mandela’s legacy is that historical change was led by one man, but accepted and followed by millions. Mandela, his stoical demeanour as he walked free after 27 years in prison, inspired the people of South Africa to overcome injustice, take a stand for what was right and to be the change themselves. It was the day before my 7th birthday and 23 years later I now understand more fully the impact on my life and many millions more.
Tributes from world leaders at the passing of Mandela credited him with being a remarkably unique individual. President Zuma said that South Africa had ‘lost its greatest son’ while Obama lamented that the world had ‘lost one of the most influential, courageous and profoundly good human beings that any of us will share time with on this earth’. I agree with these sentiments, as I too am in awe of a man who was so in command of his own human nature that he used forgiveness as his most powerful weapon. However, there is a part of me that hopes Mandela’s legacy will be shared with many through the ages. I somehow think that he would prefer it if he was credited with starting a movement where individuals realised the potential for change inside each one of them and then went on to surpass anything he was ever able to achieve.
Millions around the world still suffer from the effects of poverty and injustice, especially in places like South Africa. To truly credit the legacy of this extraordinary man we must never let it fade into the pages of history. If we shared this earth with Madiba, even for a short while, we carry a small part of him in our hearts. To believe he was some kind of super-human allows us to become complacent. Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, may you rest in peace, in the knowledge that there are many who will continue to work toward the ideals for which you stood: ‘to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others’, ‘for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite’.