“I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” – Nelson Mandela, facing the death penalty, 1964
I don’t know much about the life of Nelson Mandela.
It’s because I’m a self-centered American often guilty of not considering the suffering that goes on in other parts of the world.
I only knew him as the poster child for racial equality in South Africa and that he’d endured so much to see that dream realized. A champion for human rights; adored and respected globally.
Mandela died December 5, at age 95, to the sadness of admirers worldwide.
I wanted to get a better sense of the man whose life and death reverberated globally. So I read about him. I’m no historian. I’m going to miss major milestones in his life. But these are the highlights that jumped off the screen at me.
The Life of Nelson Mandela
- Born 1918.
- Lost his father at age 12.
- Expelled from college for participating in a student protest.
- Graduated college in 1943.
- Married in 1944. Had four children—two boys, two girls. One of his daughters died in infancy.
- Co-founded South Africa’s first black law firm in 1952.
- Separated from his wife in 1955. Divorced in 1958.
- Remarried in 1958. Fathered two more daughters.
- He was arrested several times between 1955 and 1962. He received a five-year prison sentence for leaving the country illegally and inciting workers to strike.
- In 1963, he stood trial with 10 others and faced the death penalty.
- In 1964, Mandela was sentenced to life in prison.
- His mom died in 1968. His eldest son died the following year. He was unable to attend their funerals.
- He had prostate surgery in 1985, after serving 21 years of his life sentence.
- He was diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1988 and was hospitalized for three months.
- Released from prison in 1990.
- Helped spearhead talks to end white minority rule in 1991.
- Won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993.
- Inaugurated as South Africa’s first democratically elected president in 1994.
- Divorced again in 1996.
- Kept his word, and stepped down in 1999 after one term as president.
- Lived the rest of his life championing freedom, education and equality for all.
The Legacy of a Hero
Mandela was just a man. He didn’t have superpowers. He had marital troubles just like the rest of us. Failed at marriage twice.
But what a life—from the outside looking in. Not one to envy. Just one to admire.
We don’t have to be political leaders to change the world. We don’t have to be messiahs. Or miracle workers.
You can just be you, living with a servant’s heart.
A soldier changes the world when she dies fighting to protect her country’s citizens.
A firefighter changes the world when he rescues a child from a burning building.
A teacher changes the world when she makes a breakthrough with a troubled student who goes on to do great things.
A volunteer changes the world when he serves the homeless, not with pity, but with compassion.
A writer changes the world when she pours her soul into the words, helping us heal.
An adoptive parent changes the world when he provides opportunity for children to maximize their human potential.
A spiritual leader changes the world when she helps us tap into life’s greatest mysteries, where peace and hope live.
A coach changes the world when he teaches young people the value of teamwork.
A mother changes the world when she brings a child into it.
A father changes the world when he serves his wife and family.
The lessons of Mandela’s life are that if you’re willing to accept that life won’t always be easy. And that there won’t always be shortcuts to success. And that we’re all human and prone to failure.
And that we must sometimes endure great pain and hardships along our journey.
That everyone is capable of changing the world for the better.
That we’re all capable of being part of the solution.
This isn’t about hippie circles and peace signs. This isn’t about being the most sensitive person in the world. This isn’t about peace rallies or candlelight vigils or political causes.
It’s just about using today to love and respect yourself. To love and respect others. To love and respect life.
Mandela spent the better part of 30 years in prison fighting extreme injustice and racism, health issues, emotional turmoil, and came out the other side a hero and symbol of hope.
Isn’t that proof enough that we can love our neighbors?
That we can stand up against the wrongs that plague our lives?
That we can be brave enough to say: I can change the world?
It won’t always be comfortable. It won’t always be safe.
It will never be easy.
But you absolutely can make a difference.
And you can start today.