On Nelson Mandela’s Relevance

When Nelson Mandela passed away on December 5th, I remember feeling bereft, even though the former president of South Africa had been in critical condition for months.

Most African kids know of Mandela; our parents herald him as the father of Africa – the example of an honest fight for equality. Many African nations still deal with divisions across tribal divides, and Nelson Mandela–Madiba, as he is sometimes affectionately called–proved that economic and social progress can be attained only when a country is united. He championed education as the primary tool for the advancing of the people, especially the blacks of South Africa who, as a result of apartheid, had been robbed of many opportunities that should be available to all.

As news channels and programs ran specials on Nelson Mandela’s life in response to his death, I observed the story of his life–his accomplishments, his struggle, his unwavering belief in forgiveness, his tenacious fight for equality for all–and I felt gripped, challenged.

His history begged the question: what do I stand for; what would I fight for?

And I wondered, in our somewhat unaware and secluded town of Collegedale, are we as affected by Mandela’s death as Africans, politicians and journalists are?

I asked two classes of mainly seniors a few questions (that they answered anonymously) to gauge how much they know about Mandela.

In one of the first class I surveyed, out of twenty-six students, eleven seemed to have a solid understanding of who Mandela was.  Four students seemed to know of him, at least of his character and nationality. Seven answered honestly, saying that they have no knowledge of him, while four others ventured to take a wild guess.

In the second class of 30 students, ten students demonstrated a solid understanding of him, eight seemed to know of him, nine admitted to not knowing about him, and another three chose to take a wild guess.

When I took the survey to the cafeteria, David Barrios, a junior, answered, “Mandela was the president of South Africa, big on human rights and equality. He advocated education and put South Africa back on its feet.”

Chase Walker and Nick Goss, both juniors, admitted to knowing “absolutely nothing” about Mandela.

Brandon Scuilli, also a junior, said, “Wasn’t he like a Gandhi? Wasn’t Gandhi like they choose a different Gandhi all the time? Oh wait, never mind, I’m thinking of the Dalai Lama.”

Zoe Graham, a freshman, answered, “I just found out he died.”

After giving a brief description about who Mandela was, I asked these students to tell me why they think people here don’t know about Mandela.

Goss answered, “America just seems to be uninterested.”

“Yes,” Barrios agreed, “America tends to be ignorant about most of the world –besides Europe–anywhere else, we seem to be unaware.”

And it’s understandable. Most of Mandela’s feats happened too late in history for the class to get to his story, and he has been out of the public eye (besides celebrity birthday celebrations) for years now. To many of us, Africa is painted as a single country with wild lions and starving children, and opportunities to be educated on the more complex issues and political triumphs within the continent has alluded us.

Even in South Africa, as television stations paused their regular program to play tributes to Nelson Mandela, there are those who demonstrate an attitude of apathy toward Mandela’s death.

My friend Judith, who lives in Johannesburg, South Africa, told me, “There’s a huge number of people who just don’t care. They’re disrespecting him in all ways possible, and it’s saddening to see that it’s mostly the youth. They don’t realize that it’s because of him that we can actually go to a school where white people attend.”

I see Nelson Mandela’s death as an an awakening, an opportunity for us, content in our comfortable existence, to evaluate our own lives in regard to the study of his. Mandela, as a human, was far from perfect, but his life holds so much good that we can learn from. We should be challenged by Mandela’s humility, as he believed, even after twenty-seven years of being unjustly imprisoned, that “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.”

When reading these words of his: “There is no easy walk to freedom anywhere, and many of us will have to pass through the valley of the shadow of death again and again before we reach the mountaintop of our desires,” we should be compelled to ask ourselves: how far would we go for what we claim to believe in?

In a seemingly apathetic society, in a nation so divided that lawmakers have been held back from fulfilling their commitment to voters, Nelson Mandela’s passionate pursuit of social justice and deep commitment to reconciliation seems more pertinent than ever before.