An ailing hero’s legacy lives on

Credit: "South Africa The Good News" and link to (Creative Commons)

Nelson Mandela before the crowd in Johannesburg, Gauteng, SA on May 13, 2008. Credit: "South Africa The Good News" and link to (Creative Commons)

Inspirational. Indefatigable. Incorruptible. Nelson Mandela is known throughout the world for his nonviolent protests against the Afrikaner policy of apartheid, the strict segregation on the basis of race. After spending a total of 27 years in prison, including 18 years in solitary on Robben Island, Mandela emerged and won election as the first black president of South Africa in 1994. 

Mandela is South Africa’s most celebrated leader, the man who helped lead South Africa out of apartheid and the international isolation it caused. Born in Mveso, Transkei, South Africa in 1918 during the period of British rule, Mandela’s role in overcoming apartheid in post-colonial South Africa made him an international icon. His illnesses over the past few weeks and months, however, have pushed him back into the public spotlight for more tragic reasons. The Guardian reports that Mandela’s home village of Qunu has begun low-key preparations for the inevitable funeral, and the international press has already started to arrive. As the days of Mandela slowly draws to a close, people around world are starting to reflect on his legacy.

“He revolutionized his country, similar to the way Martin Luther King did in America,” said Charis Charits, a summer resident at Stanford. “Other politicians think of themselves. Him, he never thought of himself. Although there were threats [to his life], the movement was more important.”

According to Stacey, Mandela’s recent illness has both emphasized his humanity and caused her to reconsider her own life in light of his example.

“Mandela speaks to the very best in all of us. He has displayed incredible courage in incredibly difficult circumstances,” said Helen Stacey, a senior fellow at the Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law at Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies. “Equality is fundamental, and Mandela is an accessible role model, one that we can strive to emulate.”

Despite Mandela’s best efforts, South Africa still struggles with major problems not only with race relations but also with rampant crime and continued poverty, as Alex Perry argued in the March 11 cover story for TIME Magazine. Mandela’s party, the African National Congress (ANC), has not lived up the ethical standards of its most famous member. In order to progress, South Africa must fully learn and internalize the lessons of apartheid, and according to Stacey this will take time. Yet there has clearly been progress, made most evident by the hosting of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, when only a few decades prior, South Africa had not been allowed in international sporting events.

“Change cannot happen overnight, especially after 300 years of dislocation,” said Stacey. “But at least it has always been possible, in South Africa, to discuss the difficult issues.”

In a time where even the most popular politician can only garner 51 percent support, Mandela’s strong support at the ballot box and worldwide acclaim seems all the more astonishing.

“Other politicians say one thing and mean another,” said Chartis. “I don’t think anyone is close to Nelson Mandela today, except maybe [Mynamar’s] Aung San Suu Kyi.”

Through his words and deeds, Mandela has demonstrated the human ability to topple the barriers of race and inherited power.

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