Nelson Mandela – A Personal Tribute

The following post was originally published in a school magazine and newsletter in December 2013.

“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”- Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom

“What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead.” – Nelson Mandela

Last Friday morning, upon arriving at school, I made my way to the staff room as normal. Friday is the day that the teachers have a brief early morning meeting to discuss upcoming events at the school. It was during the short walk to the staff room that I heard the beep that indicated my phone had a message. Looking down I read the newsflash that had just arrived from the Guardian newspaper – Nelson Mandela had died at the age of 95.

This should not have really been a shock; the news emanating from South Africa for a while had been of Nelson Mandela’s failing health. He had now reached the age of 95 and his passing was inevitable at some point. Despite all this, it was with a feeling of a profound sense of loss that I entered the staff meeting that morning. This is unusual when you consider the fact that I had never even met the man and yet, judging by the news, there are millions of people around the world who feel exactly the same as I do, as though we have endured some sort of personal loss with his passing.

In education we often talk about things like respect, cooperation and resilience because they are values and character traits that can help students during the learning process but it is through great people like Nelson Mandela that we realise the true meaning of these words. Here is a man who spent all his adult life fighting to be respected and treated with dignity in the country of his birth. A man whose radical ideas about justice were met with violence by the ruling Government and who decided, initially, to meet that violence with acts of sabotage.

Here is a man who was sent to prison and was separated from his family for 27 years due to his unbreakable belief in the right to dignity and equal human rights for all races. He was released, unbowed, in February 1990. I remember coming home from school and watching the live coverage of Nelson and Winnie Mandela, leaving the prison, arms raised. I would have been the equivalent of a Year 7 student. I can remember thinking then what an incredible journey he had endured to arrive at that point; little did I know that it was just the beginning of an even more incredible journey for the man known by his followers as Madiba.

Having secured his release from prison on his own terms, Nelson Mandela eventually went on to win the first truly free and democratic elections in South Africa, another event I remember watching live on television. Who could have blamed him, once he had become President, if he had used his new position of power in South Africa, to exact revenge upon the people who had treated him and his followers so abominably for all those years? That, after all, would have been the human thing to do. Instead, it was here that he showed true greatness; far from exacting revenge, this proud and humble man sought to reach out to those who had most abused him, and embraced them in the spirit of forgiveness and reconciliation. Much to the surprise of many, he talked about a South Africa for all races and for all people and encouraged both the white and black communities of his country to build a ‘rainbow nation’ of unity.

These were not just empty gestures designed to appease an uncertain population; Mr Mandela set the example and walked the walk when it came to reconciling himself with his enemies and forgiving them. He invited his former jailer to attend his presidential inauguration as a VIP guest and he invited the man who led the state’s case against him in 1964, calling for the imposition of the death penalty, to lunch at the presidency.

There is also the moving story, told in the film ‘Invictus’ of how Nelson Mandela used the 1995 Rugby World Cup to publicly embrace, the Springboks, to make the gesture that everyone was welcome in Nelson Mandela’s South Africa. As Desmond Tutu put it, the image of Mandela stepping out for the Rugby World Cup Final with captain Francois Pienaar’s No 6 Springbok jersey on, was a gesture that did more for nation building and reconciliation than any number of politician’s speeches.

It could have all been so different. No one expected a peaceful transition from the apartheid era South Africa. One only has to look at Zimbabwe to see the way things could have turned out. However, with his trademark humility, good nature and patience, Madiba was able to deliver the unthinkable; the possibility of a nation built on unity and respect rather than division and inequality.

So it is only right that we take the time to remember this remarkable man and pause to think about the universal lessons he taught us during his momentous life.

It is a little known fact that the work Nelson Mandela was forced to undertake in a limestone mine everyday, while he was a prisoner, left him with damaged tear ducts that meant he was unable to cry, until he had corrective surgery in 1994. Who could blame us if, on Sunday 14th December when he is finally laid to rest, we shed a few of the tears that for so long, he was unable to.

Goodbye Madiba, we will miss you.

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