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Honoring the values and spirit of Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela
Nelson Mandela Photo: South Africa The Good News

“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.” Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela’s long illness might have helped us to reflect on his heritage for his country of birth, South Africa, and the world at large well before his death on Thursday, the 5th of December, 2013. Listening to the outpouring of testimonies of people from all walks of life—ordinary to dignitaries; citizens to outsidersMandela was indeed a hero of our generation. Why are friends and foes from all over the world inspired by him? 

I was only nine years old when I first heard about Mandela in my own country of birth, Ethiopia. I recall my geography teacher telling the story of how black men and women were jailed by white minority rulers. Mandela was one of them and I was just sorry for him. My teacher was using Mandela’s story in order for us to value and appreciate our grandfathers’ struggle for freedom and the victory of Adwa over invading Italian troops in 1896. It didn’t take me much time to learn more about the significance of the Ethiopian resistance, and the impact of that moment on the history of modern Africa. However, it took me a decade before I knew the facts of why Mandela suffered so much and the scale of his political vision and intelligence. When I became more politically conscious, I came to realize the complexity within which he played a pivotal role in transforming a society.

Nelson MandelaI lived in South Africa, it was my home for about four years, and I visited several times. Unlike my perspective at a young age, I can now say that Mandela, as an inmate who endured 27 years of miserable conditions, or as the founding president of post-apartheid South Africa, represents a triumph of the struggle for freedom and justice. While he will always be remembered for facilitating a peaceful transition from the apartheid regime to a democratic system in South Africa, he has also become the symbol of bravery, modesty, truthfulness, hopefulness, and respect for equality of life.

What can we all learn from him? I believe that one lesson is about the power of forgiveness as well as astonishing reconciliations with enemies including those racists who unfortunately refused to acknowledge the abuses and suffering caused by the apartheid system. We also ought to learn from Mandela about the value and power of persistence, principled leadership, and personal sacrifices for the common good of a society. I must say that Mandela only started the journey to reconstitute a peaceful, democratic, and just society during his four-year presidency. Admittedly, however, there are miles to go before we see the full realization of his dreams.

Today, we are still witnessing prevalent poverty, inequality, and suffering across Mandela’s South Africa. This is partly because there are those who gained from his “reconciliatory” approach and continue holding economic power. They are still reaping massive wealth at the expense of the poor. As we mourn his death, all those who unfairly gained must repay their huge debt to Mandela by thinking beyond their selfish agenda. It is time to give back for social justice in a way that pays our debt to the principles for which he suffered. Similarly, those who are working and supporting efforts to overcome poverty and violence all over the world should be rejuvenated and work harder to end widespread violence, impunity, marginalization, and injustice. That will be the best and greatest way to honor Mandela.

Nelson Mandela’s legacy should continue inspiring as we learn more and more from his “long walk to freedom." I prefer to believe that he is still alive when we celebrate his life and begin to live his values. His spirit will remain flourishing if we continue to uphold the values of courage, freedom, and justice. Madiba has indeed inspired me to work for peace and social justice for
several years. Similarly, I have faith that his legacy will inspire many more young men and women. We must keep promoting vitality and courage among them as they continue to struggle for inclusiveness, tolerance, and fairness.

About the Author

Dereje Wordofa serves as AFSC's Regional Director for Africa.