The lessons Nelson Mandela taught me

Reflections of a 40 year old, white South African male.

Good night Madiba.
(Photo taken from

Unfortunately we live in a country where most international news are not, let’s just say, inspirational.  Between headlines of Oscar Pistorius, crime, corruption and Julius Malema we have more than our fair share of controversy.

However there is one shining light, one glittering lantern that can disperse any shadow of gloom that might be hovering over discussions of my South Africa.  And we all know that shining light belongs to Nelson Mandela.  The sad reality is that with everything this man has done for country and men, his time with us is rapidly coming to an end.  His light is fading.

I have never met the man, never even seen him in real life, but I know I owe him a great deal.  I understand that he played a crucial role in a turmoil time of our less than illustrious history.  I grasp the fact that he is a great man.  The closest thing to a hero any politician would dream of becoming.  And I end up asking myself: What did he really mean to me?  How different would my life have been without him in it?

It was the early nineties.  The country was under enormous international pressure due to the policy of Apartheid.  The government didn’t really have any other choice but to embark on a road of retribution and the first step on that route was to release Nelson Mandela from prison.  It might come as a surprise to most of you, but for an average white kid born in the seventies, Mandela did not exist.  We never heard his name, we didn’t understand the controversial legislation of the land and the only thing the government of the day instilled was a fundamental understanding and fear of terrorism.

I remember being an 18-year-old  student when our future president was released from Robben Island.  I was looking at this man on the screen, being cheered on by thousands, doing a walk of freedom and I didn’t know who he was or why this was happening.  That changed quickly.  On the day of his release, a nation of young people woke up.  A whole generation shocked out of a long slumber party.  This man was in prison for 27 years, isolated on an Island for wanting equality for his people.

Did he prevent a civil war?  I don’t know.  The only thing I do know is that he must be the most forgiving person on the planet.  It still amazes me that one person could shed resentment and obvious feelings of injustice so quickly.  Feelings that were bubbling for so many years.  And this man walks out of jail and talk about how we should forgive and forget, take hands and move forward.  He illustrated by his own actions that forgiveness is possible as long as you are willing to let go of the history and the transgressions you might feel.  And that lesson goes for each one of us in our daily life.

I have seen a few interviews, but one specific one stuck in my mind.  It was with Oprah Winfrey.   She was relaying the story of how they were sitting in her green room waiting for the program to air.  And Nelson Mandela asked her what the program would be about.  She started laughing because the program was obviously about him.  I was taken aback by his humble nature.  He didn’t have one bad thing to say in that whole interview.

It has been almost twenty years since that fateful day and our children are now learning of the things he has done.  He is unique, no president of this country will ever be able to fit in his shoes, to walk in the steps that he planted on our land.  To have his credibility, his morality, his understanding of what it takes to lead people.

I would like to thank him for that.  Thank you Madiba, for your amazing tolerance, your sincere humility, your unmeasurable sense of forgiveness, and your amazing leadership.  Thank you for showing the citizens of South Africa that we can achieve the impossible if we take hands, leave the past behind us and walk together to a brighter future.  And by showing us, we could show the world.

So Mr President, Nobel peace price winner, child rights advocate, symbol of South Africa, Madiba; when God finally decides that your time with us has passed, whenever that might be, and the light finally fades into shadow, I know that you will rest in peace.  The country will miss your presence, your name, your shuffle and your example.

But the lessons you taught will stay with us forever.


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