First Person: Thank you, Madiba

Nelson Mandela taught us how to create a better world


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"So sorry,” said the email, “to learn of the death today of Nelson Mandela. I know he was one of your great heroes.”

The news of Mandela’s death came as no surprise. Yet the thought of his absence in my homeland fills me with emotion. There is deep, deep gratitude.

I was 17 years old when the first “free and fair” election took place in South Africa, closing its long, rough chapter of apartheid. The end of oppressive regimes in countries close to us, like Mozambique, had ended with hatred expressed in bloodshed. Could South Africa expect anything different after so many years of oppression?

Most of us white Afrikaans families expected the worst. We could feel the anger rising in the streets like a tide ready to wash us away. I remember packing stacks of tinned food in our cupboard for when the world would go belly-up.

Yet Mandela knew this, he knew that revenge might provide momentary satisfaction but he did not want to repeat the pattern and see the black majority of South Africa turn into the oppressor. The life of the angry and hateful ruling class was not the life he wanted for his children. He believed in an inclusive future, and he did his damnedest to help our country create it.

There is some relief, too.

Mandela had an incredibly rich life. A painful life. A life of struggle, perseverance, heartbreak, sorrow, miracles and joy. After his journey and after his long sickness, the only thing I wanted for him was to let go of all that is human and disappear into whatever stillness, kindness and rest the world beyond ours has to offer.

Then I felt a great heap of sadness.

The incredible gift of Mandela’s life was to show our country a new way of being in our world. He demonstrated what it means to see the value in all persons, no matter how poorly they treated him. He learned to look through violent and cruel behavior to see human beings worthy of his respect and capable of acting with care and kindness. His unbending belief in the goodness of each person pulled that goodness out of them, no matter how deeply it was buried under the rubble of past hurts or cultural lies.

It made me so hopeful to see this during my lifetime! And it makes me so, so sad that he still seems an anomaly — a great leader we were privileged to have had, a great leader whose chapter has come to a close.

And this makes me angry!

It makes me angry that we do not grow up — as individuals and as societies — to become the peacemaking Nelson Mandelas our world so dearly needs. Instead, we grow up to become who we are trained to be by our culture — usually either the dominant oppressor or the subservient oppressed.

How many more times will we keep quiet in conversations when our true selves long to speak the truth, to challenge the status quo? How many times will we refuse to offer kindness — be it to our tired selves or to some part of society we pretend doesn’t exist? How much longer will we make enemies in our minds, and talk badly about those “other people” — people we have never tried to understand? How much longer will we allow our past pains and anger to barricade the road to forgiveness? How many more years of oppression will it take before we wake up to the fact that we ARE the world?

In every day and with every decision, we have a choice. We can choose to perpetuate the patterns of the past or to become the change we want to see. We carry within us the capacity to be a Nelson Mandela.

As we give voice to the truth inside us, the lies that nurture oppression falter. As we offer kindness and compassion, our world becomes a kinder place. As we reach out of our segregated world and make meaningful contact with those who are different, our world becomes more peaceful. As we mend our relationships with past pains, we find the generosity to befriend those we thought were enemies. As we heal and mend, our world heals and mends.

If I had been able to hug Nelson Mandela before he left us on Thursday, I would have said, “Thank you, Madiba, for showing us a way out of oppression that transcends rage or anemic sympathy. Your way is built on the belief that every human being is an equal and everyone carries within them the capacity to be a strong, kind, loving and generous human being. Thank you for teaching us.”

Hannah du Plessis is a principal with Fit Associates, a design and creative-process consulting firm based in Polish Hill.


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