Nelson Mandela: An Inspiration to All of Us
This week, Nelson Mandela died.
He lived an amazing life. He spent 27 years imprisoned by F.W. De Klerk, the president of South Africa. He went on to become President and he made his jailor Vice-president! While his country was on the brink of a civil war, he found a way of bringing his nation together over a rugby game. He was a miracle. He was South Africa’s son and redeemer.
Growing up in the 60’s, I agonized over the plight of black South Africans. Active in our civil rights movement, I saw apartheid as the ultimate evil born from prejudice. I always imagined that South Africa’s plight would only be solved through bloodshed. It was overwhelming to behold.
Nelson Mandela’s story (I recommend that you read his autobiography—The long walk to freedom) is remarkable. Despite his years of incarceration, he was able to overcome his bitterness and anger to help his nation nurture the seeds of reconciliation. By no means is South Africa out of the woods, but they have come such a long way in very few years.
He was an inspiration to every person who aspired to overcome oppression, bitterness, and strife. I am sure that he was not a perfect person. But his actions, on behalf of his people, were as close to perfect as one can imagine.
Over the years, during tense office visits with couples at great odds, I would bring up Mandela’s legacy. “If Nelson Mandela could find a way to share the presidency of South Africa with F.W. De Klerk, the man who jailed him for 27 years, it is possible for the two of you to get along better!” I would exclaim. I would follow up with—“Mandela taught us that anything is possible”. Indeed, he did.
I don’t know how Mandela felt about his life in prison. I am sure that he had some dark moments. Yet he never gave up hope. He realized that reconciliation and forgiveness was the most important impulse to follow. And he did.
I always think of his sacrifice and his example when I find myself feeling at odds with someone. I think to myself—“If Mandela could co-exist with F.W. De Klerk, I can find a way of reconciling with this person!” Great leaders inspire us to go beyond what we think we can do. They remind us of what is possible.
In my lifetime, I never thought that South Africa would become free of apartheid without a bloody civil war. I never imagined that the Soviet Union would cease to exist. I couldn’t imagine the Berlin Wall tumbling down. I was a teenager when three civil rights workers were murdered in Mississippi. I never imagined that one day, in my lifetime, a black man would become president of the United States! And yet all of these large events have come to pass.
Nelson Mandela reminds us that anything is possible, if we dedicate ourselves to it, body, mind, and spirit. This is a great message to remember at the personal level too. It is also true for each one of us.
What does Nelson Mandela’s life mean to you?