Mandela: A Hero Worth Knowing

A few months ago I posted about heroes, and wondered who else might need to be added to the list of 7 Metaxas created.

Then yesterday, the world stopped. Tributes began to pour in from around the globe for a man who changed everything. At age 95, the great champion of anti-apartheid in South Africa Nelson Mandela passed away.TugQgqE(source)

Today, I’m iced in, and remembering how I learned of the most inspirational man who I shared time on this earth with. This morning the Today show anchors called him a mix of our Washington, Lincoln, and Martin Luther King Jr. combined. Quite a statement to be sure, but I don’t think it was an exaggeration.

Maybe I just wasn’t listening in school, but the first I remember learning about apartheid from- wait for it- a Disney Channel Original Movie (DCOM, if you will) called The Color of Friendship. Of course I’m a little ashamed this was my first taste, but it was a story worth telling, and I had been ignorant at best.

The movie shared a story of a white girl from South Africa who came to stay with a family in the United States. The African American girl she stayed with was shocked to meet a “white African,” and the opposite was also true! As it turned out, racist ties ran deep within the hearts of both girls, and I was shocked to learn of the horrific racism that had existed in South Africa during my lifetime.

I still didn’t know much of Mandela, but a few years ago Matt Damon starred in a rugby film, (Invictus) focusing on Mandela’s attempt to reconcile a nation through sport after he was elected president. Matt Damon in a movie? Okay sure I’ll see it. ((Is my maturity showing yet?)) Still, the movie inspired me to study the life of this man more.

invictus2dThere’s a great line in the movie, when Mandela’s aid asks why he is so obsessed with saving an ailing rugby team, “So it’s just a political calculation for you?” Mandela replies, “Eh, it is a human calculation.” He knew reinforcing the cycles of fear among the people would end up destroying the nation he loved.

He fought with peace for reconciliation, leading the way with incomprehensible forgiveness. After being a political prisoner for 27 years (let that sink in- 27 years in prison), he later invited one of his white jailers to his inauguration as president. New York Times columnist Nickolas Kristof wrote a thorough tribute to Mandela yesterday, mentioning many of his accomplishments as his legacy lives on.

Like any human being, he was flawed. Only Jesus was a perfect leader, and Mandela’s personal family life sticks out to me as a heartbreaking gap in his influential life. I don’t know the full story, and don’t feel the need to explore all the tabloid suppositions, but those near three decades in jail obviously took a toll on his wife and children. He sacrificed everything for the causes he believed in, and they didn’t always stand behind him. Every story has three sides, and sadly this facet of his life is sad on all three.

Some of his most famous quotes include these:

“I was made, by the law, a criminal, not because of what I had done, but because of what I stood for, because of what I thought, because of my conscience.” (Statement during trial, 1962)

“If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner.” (From Long Walk to Freedom, 1995)

“It is never my custom to use words lightly. If twenty-seven years in prison have done anything to us, it was to use the silence of solitude to make us understand how precious words are and how real speech is in its impact on the way people live and die.”  (South Africa, July 14, 2000)

 “When people are determined they can overcome anything.” (Johannesburg, South Africa, Nov. 14, 2006)

“For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”

(source 1; source 2)

May his legacy live on. Do yourself a favor and read what people are saying about him. The Today Show did many interviews this morning, and most are still listed here on their website. Watch Invictus on DVD. Go see the newest movie about him, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (in theaters now!). Read his biography.

But just like we study the lives of Washington, Lincoln, and MLK, don’t just read the stories and remain unaffected. Mandela proves the influence possible through just one person. He stood for truth, justice, and forgiveness long before any of his ideas were mainstream. His own advisors advised him against most of his unpopular initiatives to restore humanity in a nation who had forgotten the innate value of people.

Perhaps Mandela’s greatest accomplishment was to reinstall the value of a person, and of a people. May this truth penetrate our hearts as well.

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