Back in 2011, I lived in South Africa for five months. I had read Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, beforehand, and had loved the movie Invictus. I arrived on African soil with a deep admiration for this man, which deepened further as I learnt more about the country’s history, apartheid and the seemingly-impossible obstacles that he helped to overcome.
Even just coming from this more theoretical and researched approach, I was already is awe. He showed a dedication to his cause that lasted a lifetime and landed him in jail for years. He tried to remain loyal to his belief in non-violent tactics, even though this made the process of change slower and often more difficult. He showed a huge amount of wisdom in the subtle ways that he went about unifying the country after the end of apartheid. And even after growing up in the midst of so much hate, he never discriminated against anyone, and was quick to forgive and befriend even those that mistreated him.
But it was the realities that I saw while living in South Africa that really drove home the impact that Mandela has had. For one, in a nation that was so long divided along the lines of race, I now found myself in social circles comprising people with skin that was black, white and every shade in between – and they all proudly identified as South African. And I’m not kidding about the “proudly” bit either: I noticed the national flag happily displayed on every possible surface from clothing and key-rings to car mirrors, backpacks and bracelets. It’s the type of place where people are happy to sing you every line of a local song because you hadn’t heard it before, and where you can sense the public anticipation if a national sports team is playing.
I’m not saying that the country is perfect, and of course there are still negative remnants of the past. But despite these differences, Mandela had a way of making everyone rise above any issues and come together. Why? Out of an utter love and respect for the man that really gave his life for the bettering of his nation.
This really struck me on his birthday when I was there. The year beforehand, Mandela asked that as a gift to him, he’d love for people to undertake an hour of community service. And so the year when I was there, the people had committed to 67 minutes of community work on July 18th. While others may have expected a giant monument to be raised in their honour, Mandela was still finding ways to unite and improve the country. And I’m hard pressed to think of any other country where people would do such a thing for an ex-president!
While there are certainly aspects of Mandela’s life that I don’t agree with, I think this is a case where we can focus on the overwhelming positives. As soon as he passed away, my Facebook feed was full of his face and words of wisdom, and not just from my South African friends. Although it’s so sad to lose him – and I do wonder about the state of politics now that he’s not physically present in the background – it’s easy to see that even in death, he is still uniting people on both a local and international scale.