By Renford Reese, Ph.D : Nelson Mandela was the greatest symbol of humanity in modern times. His story is inspirational on multiple levels. As South African president Jacob Zuma stated, “Our nation has lost its greatest son. Our people have lost a father.” Mandela was the nation’s first black president. He founded the armed wing of the African National Congress and resisted the system of apartheid in South Africa. For his activities with this group, he was convicted of conspiracy to overthrow the South African government and sentenced to life in prison. He spent 27 years in prison.
Mandela was embraced as a freedom fighter by blacks worldwide yet deemed a terrorist by white South Africans. Even in prison, his fight to end South Africa’s apartheid regime, made him the most dangerous and feared man in the nation. During his incarceration, it was illegal for people to print, post, or discuss his name.
My mentor, Edward Perkins, became the first black U.S. ambassador to South Africa in 1986. He shared with me countless stories about the evils of apartheid. Apartheid is a system of governance based on rigid racial segregation and discrimination. Mandela fought tirelessly to end this inhumane system.
After he was released from prison, Mandela became the president of his nation in 1994. He ushered in a peaceful, democratic, and non-racial government. As president, his greatest achievement was his commitment to reconciliation. In his inauguration speech, he told his black and white countrymen: “The time for the healing of the wounds has come. The moment to bridge the chasms that divide us has come. The time to build is upon us.”
The 2009 biographical sports drama, Invictus, captures the essence of Mandela’s conciliatory spirit. The film tells the story of Mandela’s leadership before and during the 1995 Rugby World Cup, which was hosted in South Africa after the country had dismantled apartheid. This episode in South African history is more about how Mandela used his charisma and personal touch to inspire blacks and whites in South Africa to unite, than it was about the Springboks winning the World Cup.
Mandela taught us that the three most important concepts we should embrace are love, humility, and forgiveness—and the convergence of these ideals leads to reconciliation. His life embodied these principals.
The message that Mandela gave to his citizens should be the same message that world leaders give to their citizens: “Our daily deeds as ordinary South Africans must produce an actual South African reality that will reinforce humanity’s belief in justice, strengthen its confidence in the nobility of the human soul and sustain all our hopes for a glorious life for all.”
There are dynamic lessons that we should learn from Nelson Mandela’s life. For those who have embraced hyper-punitive criminal justice policies, understand that the person you are harshly punishing could have the potential of Mandela. For those incarcerated, understand that Mandela spent 27 years in a small cell and came out a better man not a bitter man. You still have the potential to be great.
Mandela’s lesson for educators is to not give up on the poor kids who are rebellious. Work to transform the rebels without a cause into rebels with a cause. Mandela’s lesson for youth is to live with purpose and determination. His spirit was never broken–even after 27 years in prison.
I learned of the South African concept of Ubuntu, “I am because we are,” when I visited the country in 2000. Ubuntu is brotherhood, sisterhood, community– Mandela lived this concept. We should all strive to live this concept.
South Africa lost its favorite son and the father of the nation. The world has lost a shining symbol of selfless leadership—but has gained so much more.
Renford Reese, Ph.D. is a political science professor at Cal Poly Pomona. He is the author of five books and the founder/director of the Prison Education Project: www.PrisonEducationProject.org