Many in the world are mourning the loss of the inspirational leader, Nelson Mandela who passed away on Thursday, December 5, 2013. Nelson Mandela was a courageous activist whose voice, work and life served as passionate, inspirational fuel to a torn nation in desperate need of sweeping social change. The story of the South African people was one that struck the hearts of the world, bringing to light a system of injustice and racial discrimination that was stuck in time, violent and terrifying to witness in our modern age.
We salute President Madiba (Nelson) Mandela by reflecting on four key lessons on community transformation that we may learn from his life, experiences and the push to end apartheid in South Africa.
1. The road to real, lasting change is difficult and can often take much longer than we want it to.
“It always seems impossible until it’s done.” The road to the end of Apartheid did not occur overnight and while hope always remained, it would take decades of pressure and activism before the tide would turn. Mandela’s own journey involved 20 years of activism in the African National Congress pressing the agenda and challenging the powerful structures that had existed for centuries. An additional 27 years of imprisonment would occur before the international groundswell of support would lead to his release and catalyze the long journey of change needed to transform his nation to reflect the dreams of its people. The work in South Africa is not done, pain remains, power struggles are ever-present but the people persist and continue to strive. We must do the same.
2. It takes courage to believe in change and to push for greatness.
“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.” What a terrifying prospect to know that speaking one’s truth and pressing for basic human rights might result in your imprisonment or death. We are fortunate to have the opportunity and ability to work towards changing systems and working with our community leaders, elected officials and government structures to make our communities healthy and vibrant. Yet, many of our friends, neighbors and relatives do not feel they can speak out, ask for help or question the decisions that are made which impact their lives. For those of us who can, we must speak out, we must press on, we must believe that the future is bolder and brighter than we ever could have imagined.
3. Keep caring. Never stop caring.
“For 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.” The world’s response to the reality of South African Apartheid was resounding and clear: It must be eradicated. Let’s remember, that this was in 1993, not 1893. Governments placed major sanctions on the South African regime and corporations like Coca-cola were globally boycotted against for operating their factories under the same oppressive conditions that the South African government utilized to institutionalize racial segregation. People all over the world cared. They cared enough to boycott, to speak out, to pull their financial investments, to decry the violence and to demand justice. It was a global response, not one that said to leave it to South Africa to resolve on its own. As humans, we said, we believe that this is wrong and that what happens there, impacts all of our lives everywhere. Racial segregation in the United States did not end by accident, and the memories of our own nation’s history were reflected in the lives of South Africans under apartheid. Our own progress compels us to pay it forward. We must use our health, our knowledge, our resources and energy to keep pushing ahead to help others. Never Stop Caring.
4. You have everything within you needed to lead from exactly where you are.
“Lead from the back – and let others believe they are in front.” – Nelson Mandela was in jail for nearly thirty years, yet the movement carried on in his physical absence throughout that time through the work of others. We often believe major change requires a singular champion — a Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatama Ghandi, Cesar Chavez — but each of these individuals had a legion of people who were working behind the scenes. The work of those not in the spotlight was crucial to the success of their goals and were treated with equal importance to those in front of the cameras. The passing of these leaders does not mean that the work dies, no, it must not mean the end of the journey for everyone else. It cannot. We may not know your names, but we see your good work and are inspired by what you do, everyday. While we may never see your face, ultimately, you are the leaders that push this work forward. Thank you.