Today is Nelson Mandela International Day. It commemorates the lifetime of service Nelson Mandela gave to South Africa and the world. The UN General Assembly launched Nelson Mandela International Day on his birthday in 2009 via a unanimous decision. This day also marks 100 years since his birth (July 18, 1918).
Mandela Day calls on us all, every day, to make the world a better place. Each year, we look back on what has been done. We look forward to what we can still do to further the peace and humanity that Mandela sought after.
Today, I’m reflecting on Nelson Mandela’s legacy as I consider his life, his leadership and his devotion to humanity and to humanitarian causes.
A good friend of mine was the Managing Director of Mandela Leadership Foundation and I had the benefit of knowing him well. Through listening to him describe his encounters with Mandela; I’ve come to intimately understand some of the principles by which he lived, even in times of his own personal sacrifice.
Mandela spent 27 years in prison for standing up against a government that was committing egregious human rights abuses against black South Africans. Throughout his imprisonment, he had rejected at least three conditional offers of release as he was unwavering in his stance. While in prison, he never gave up. Upon his release he still exercised his values, displaying forgiveness and rejecting bitterness. He understood that vengeance would only hinder his goals as those who harbor anger are ultimately the ones who end up in bondage.
On 10 May 1994, he was inaugurated as South Africa’s first democratically elected President. He stood to unite a country whose racial divides were deeply rooted. His efforts toward freedom and unity were all relational. He made practical efforts to build strong interracial relationships and break down the barriers that stood to divide South Africa. One of the most prevalent ways he did this was through sports. South Africa’s rugby team consisted of all white men with the exception of one black man. Many black South Africans rejected the team as representing them and would even cheer for the opposing team.
Mandela denounced this and called on all of South Africa to stand behind this team regardless of race.
Mandela had a driver take him to the training grounds. But first, he took the time to learn every player’s and coach’s names so that he could address them personally. He invited the captain of the team to tea and insisted on serving his guest himself. He challenged the team to enter into the most impoverished environments in South Africa and put on coaching clinics for children. These world-class white athletes pouring into young black children set the stage for the kind of country Mandela hoped would prosper. Despite terrible provocation, he never answered racism with racism.
Serve Every Day:
Mandela understood that after apartheid legislation, (the system of racial segregation in South Africa) was overturned, there could be potential for white retaliation. He wasn’t trying to move the pendulum to the other side, but rather he was trying to establish the balance; he was trying to establish true equality. Real peacemakers move people from a state of enmity to amity.
At his core, Mandela was a peacemaker. He didn’t just stand up for the oppressed but rather for the entire society. Mandela asked more of those around him. He inspired generations with his revolutionary approach to leadership. He united his people through a collective love of country.
Mandela revered even those of mixed race, who were often viewed as the lowest class of people. He served others and gave tangible examples of how to live out these values. He intentionally hired an integrated security staff while he was president. Another friend of mine named Charles was one of those people, called “Coloureds.” He had been highly restricted on living, education, and economic opportunities. Charles realized his significance and dignity and has taken steps to become a leader of a community development association.
Today he pastors a church in one of the most vulnerable areas of South Africa and many recognize him for his model for transformation.
It was his commitment to affirming the value and worth of all people that made him an iconic and unparalleled leader. He allowed people to see themselves as more than simply categorized by their race. His leadership foundation, founded after his presidency ended, exists to promote his vision. It works to create platforms for engagement around critical issues. It strives to promote social justice as well as peace and reconciliation interventions. Mandela lived in the belief that every person can and should create positive change. Everyone can do something. It doesn’t have to be large acts of heroism. Even be small acts of kindness that restore relationships and allow people to live in the freedom of their own dignity and worth.