The Legacy of Nelson Mandela
Humility. Compassion. Humanity.
These are the words that South African President Jacob Zuma used to describe Nelson “Madiba” Mandela, the global icon who touched the world like few people in our generation. “His tireless struggle for freedom earned him the respect of the world,” the South African President noted. “His HUMILITY, his COMPASSION and his HUMANITY earned him their love.”
Humility. Compassion. Humanity. What beautiful words to describe one’s legacy.
Think about a man who grew up under the evil of apartheid, and who fought for freedom, justice and dignity. In combating an evil system which most of the world accepted, especially throughout much of the 20th century, he ended up being condemned to life in a hard labor prison camp. Yet instead of becoming bitter, Mandela noted, “A real leader must be ready to sacrifice all for the freedom of his people.” And he did sacrifice 27 long years of isolation, deprivation, humiliation, hard labor, and unimaginable suffering.
"Difficulties break some men,” Mandela would say, “But difficulties make others. No axe is sharp enough to cut the soul of a sinner who keeps on trying, one armed with the hope that he will rise even in the end." And Mandela did rise after 27 years. Gaining his freedom, and becoming the first black president of South Africa, achieving something that few would have ever dreamed possible even a few years prior to his release.
Yet, what did he do with his newfound freedom and power? When his own people called for vengeance and retribution, when many in the global community thought that South Africa would become a bloodbath, he modeled behavior that the world over has greatly admired ever since. He chose forgiveness over vengeance; reconciliation over retribution. "Resentment is like drinking poison, and then hoping it will kill your enemies,” he stated, “If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then your enemy becomes your partner.”
Mandela was able to avoid resentment and a desire for vengeance. He modeled this forgiveness by even inviting one of his white jailors to be present at his inauguration as President of South Africa. "I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it…The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear." And Mandela not only conquered the fear of imprisonment, persecution and possible death against the brutal apartheid regime, but also overcoming the fear of reaching out to his enemies, forgiving his persecutors, and showing compassion to his oppressors.
“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.” Mandela set an example for the entire world to love instead of hate, to forgive instead of to hold on, to show mercy instead of to condemn. “If there are dreams about a beautiful South Africa,” he would say, “There are also roads that lead to their goal. Two of these roads could be named Goodness and Forgiveness.”
From prison cell to presidential palace, the next great temptation for Mandela was transitioning from a rebel to a presidential leader of black and white South Africa. Maybe his greatest decision as president was his commitment to serve only one term, and then to transfer power to the next president. On a continent where so many leaders fight to remain president for life, Mandela showed extreme humility in leading the country in its greatest transition, and then passing the mantle on to another.
And throughout his retirement years, he continued his good work by using his time to support charities for children, to emphasize education, to fight poverty, and to champion the struggle against AIDS. He highlighted that "Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world” and “There can be no keener revelation of a society's soul than the way in which it treats its children.”
He challenged those who would listen: “Overcoming poverty is not a task of charity, it is an act of justice. Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings. Sometimes it falls on a generation to be great. YOU can be that great generation. Let your greatness blossom.”
As the international community praised Mandela with numerous awards, including the Nobel Peace Prize, and some held him up in reverential terms, Madiba understood himself quite well. “I’m not a saint,” he warned, “Unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying... Do not judge me by my successes, judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again."
Nelson Mandela understood the path of an authentic and meaningful life –a life of repentance, change, and continual growth. He showed through his humility, his ability to forgive, his compassion, his readiness to sacrifice for others and to serve others – through his humanity he showed what life is all about!
As we remember and honor one of the most admired people of our generation, let us also learn from his these divine virtues, and strive to imitate them in our own lives.
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