Nelson Mandela is the perfect example of the intangibility of success and triumph. Although Mandela told CNN in an interview for his 90th birthday that he regretted nothing in his life, there is no doubt that his road to freedom and the South African Presidency was not without its stumbling points. Why else would one of his most quotable declarations be “The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall”? But nevertheless, he taught us to strive to be better in every way.
Mandela wasn’t always the man we will remember going forward from today. In the early years of the struggle, he co-founded the armed wing of the African National Congress (ANC) Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation) and traveled the continent amassing a following and funds for an armed struggle against apartheid. For this, he was jailed – labeled a terrorist he remained on the Untied States terrorist watch list until the age of 89, when he was removed in 2008.
It is for this reason that Mandela’s triumph over apartheid is such an inspiration. He became a beacon of forgiveness, faith and humility when no one would have blamed him for being anything but bitter and angry. Taking pause and evaluating the struggle while imprisoned on Robben Island, Mandela later abandoned the idea of an armed struggle and instead began preaching respect, tolerance and love. “People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love,” he said, and an overwhelming number of people around the world and even his enemies in South Africa sat up and took notice.
Instead of facilitating an armed resistance, which many believed would spiral the country into civil war, in his later years Mandela opted to fight apartheid with a halo. His years in prison were the crucible that created President Nelson Mandela – the optimist that believed he could work alongside his enemies to bring an end to apartheid and avoid a South African civil war.
Mandela took the helm of a sinking ship. There’s no doubt his ‘Rainbow Nation’ fell short of his albeit high expectations. Mandela wasn’t perfect– he avoided a civil war, implemented the famous Truth and Reconciliation Commission and did oversee a five-year term of stability. However, later ANC leadership has left much wanting when it comes to Mandela’s vision for the country. The current ANC government is plagued by controversy, underachievement and corruption. Rumours swirled years ago that Mandela no longer even voted for the party. But still the ANC has held power since 1994. In political science we call this phenomenon the ‘Mandela Factor’ – no one will vote against the ANC while he still lives and embodies the struggle for freedom. Despite your politics, skin colour, birthplace or hometown, Mandela is not remembered as a politician, but a man. A man we thought (or perhaps hoped) would live forever and give us hope that South Africa could become that perfect Rainbow Nation. I like to believe it still can.
My favourite Madiba quote goes like this: ‘There is no passion to be found playing small – in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.’ This is my personal choice of his many messages: that we can improve ourselves as individuals and this will change the world. We don’t all have to be Mandela – surely these shoes are too big to fill. We don’t all have to move mountains. If we all strive to be better people, whether because of a faith in God, or in the greater good for humanity, or both.
Nelson Mandela taught us about faith, forgiveness, acceptance, strength and perseverance. In an imperfect world and an unprecedented situation, he was a beacon of calm, dignity and poise. His message was not for us to make the world a better place, but to work to make ourselves better people, and this is something we need to take with us moving forward.
President Obama said in his beautiful eulogy-like speech of a man that inspired his journey towards becoming the first black president of his country, we are likely to never see another individual like Mandela again. For this reason, his message of how we can create a better South Africa and a better world is a message we can’t afford to ignore.
About the Author - Alanna Wallace
After studying international development at university and volunteering in Africa repeatedly during school holidays, Alanna made the leap to working abroad full time in 2011 when she received a volunteer coordinator position in South Africa. An avid world traveler, HIV awareness advocate and barefoot enthusiast, Alanna continues to work for African Impact as a marketing coordinator and works extensively with its charity. You can also follow Alanna’s adventures on Twitter.