Nelson Mandela Dies at Age 95: We Will Remember His Legacy

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[Editor's Note: South African anti-apartheid activist Nelson Mandela has died at age 95 on December 5, 2013. His legacy of non-violent action for racial equality will be remembered as it was by Lisa Owen, who wrote this beautiful post earlier this year when Mandela was admitted to the hospital. --Grace]

Every once in a while, there are people who achieve greatness. Maybe greatness in sports or the arts or in business, whatever their area of expertise. Of course, the word great is relative but, there are several names that history will attest to their greatness: Mohamed Ali, Babe Ruth, Marlon Brando, Billie Holiday, Caesar Chavez, Steve Jobs, Winston Churchill, to name a few. As I was listing those names I realized how far back I had to go to list people who had achieved universal greatness. A foreshadowing of what I'm about to say.

Very rarely, and almost never any more, do you find someone who is willing risk everything -- their life and their freedom -- for the betterment of others. A man or a woman whose self-sacrifice is a lot less important than achieving a common goal. A person who sees himself as a part of a movement and not seeking individual fame. This kind of greatness is rare. Nelson Mandela is a great man. I wanted to write this post while I can still say he isa great man. Mr. Mandela, 94, is in a Johannesburg hospital in critical condition and while I know that at 94, this is not unusual and he has lived a full life, I am so sad. I don't want to let go because this man has been such a shining example of leadership, integrity, humanitarianism and courage, and they just don't seem to make them like that anymore.

Nelson Mandela
Apr. 7, 2000 - Bedford, Great Britain - Former President of South Africa, Nelson Mandela, addressed an estimated crowd of up to 10, 000 in Bedford town center. (Image: © Globe Photos/ZUMAPRESS.com)

A little history lesson here, courtesy of Biography.com: Nelson Mandela was born on July 18, 1918, in Transkei, South Africa. Becoming actively involved in the anti-apartheid movement in his 20's, Mandela joined the African National Congress in 1942. For 20 years, he directed a campaign of peaceful, non-violent defiance against the South African government and its racist policies. In 1961, Mandela, who was formerly committed to nonviolent protest, began to believe that armed struggle was the only way to achieve change and subsequently co-founded Umkhonto we Sizwe, also known as MK, an armed offshoot of the ANC dedicated to sabotage and guerrilla war tactics to end apartheid. In 1961, Mandela orchestrated a three-day national workers' strike.

He was arrested for leading the strike the following year and sentenced to five years in prison. Then, in 1963, he was brought to trial again. This time, he and 10 other ANC leaders were sentenced to life imprisonment for political offenses, including sabotage.

Nelson Mandela was incarcerated on Robben Island for 18 of his 27 years in prison. During this time, he contracted tuberculosis and, as a black political prisoner, received the lowest level of treatment from prison workers. However, while incarcerated, Mandela was able to earn a Bachelor of Law degree through a University of London correspondence program. In 1982, Mandela and other ANC leaders were moved to Pollsmoor Prison, allegedly to enable contact between them and the South African government. In 1985, President P.W. Botha offered Mandela's release in exchange for renouncing armed struggle; the prisoner flatly rejected the offer. With increasing local and international pressure for his release, the government participated in several talks with Mandela over the years, but no deal was made. It wasn't until Botha suffered a stroke and was replaced by Frederik Willem de Klerk that Mandela's release was finally announced, on February 11, 1990. De Klerk also unbanned the ANC, removed restrictions on political groups and suspended executions.

Upon his release from prison, Nelson Mandela immediately urged foreign powers not to reduce their pressure on the South African government for constitutional reform. While he stated that he was committed to working toward peace, he declared that the ANC's armed struggle would continue until the black majority received the right to vote.

Nelson Mandela
Jan. 1, 2011 - A13781.052993 10/21/2003. Nelson Mandela and musicians joined forces in the fight against AIDS in South Africa. (Image: Karwai Tang/Alpha/Globe Photos/ZUMAPRESS.com)

In 1991, Mandela was elected president of the African National Congress, with lifelong friend and colleague Oliver Tambo serving as national chairperson. Mandela continued to negotiate with President F.W. de Klerk toward the country's first multiracial elections. White South Africans were willing to share power, but many black South Africans wanted a complete transfer of power. The negotiations were often strained and news of violent eruptions, including the assassination of ANC leader Chris Hani, continued throughout the country. Mandela had to keep a delicate balance of political pressure and intense negotiations amid the demonstrations and armed resistance.

In 1993, Mandela and South African President F.W. de Klerk were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts to dismantle the country's apartheid system. In 1994, Mandela was inaugurated as South Africa's first black president. In 2009, Mandela's birthday (July 18) was declared Mandela Day to promote global peace and celebrate the South African leader's legacy.

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Twenty-seven years in prison for wanting equality. Twenty- seven years of your life given for the betterment of all, not just you. Just think about that for a moment. I would like to believe that I am capable of that kind of strength of conviction. I know that I'm not and I think that most of us would fall into the "not" category. Mr. Mandela's life has given us so many things to admire, but there is one thing in particular that stands out as such an important lesson to our children. Courage. Not the type of courage that leads one to behave foolishly or recklessly, but the type of courage that requires you to stand in the face of opposition to achieve what is right. The type of courage that it might require a child to face a bully in order to protect his friend. The type of courage that he might need to refuse to allow a classmate or friend to cheat on a test; or to do it themselves when knowing that they are facing a failing grade because of their lack of preparation. The type of courage that it would take to not go along with the crowd just to be one of the cool kids. Courage that grows into an adult who refuses to compromise his morals to save his job. Courage that will not seek a higher paycheck on the backs of others. Courage that cares for mankind and loves his brother or sister deeply.

These days there seems to be no glory in standing up for what's right for the masses. It's all about "me" and the "we" has fallen by the wayside. Maybe we should look no further than this man, Mr. Mandela, who had the courage to change a nation. A man who achieved greatness by setting aside the "me" and reaching out to the "we". Persecution, oppression, incarceration be damned. He had the courage to press on, standing strong in his convictions.

No, I don't want to let go, but, what an amazing legacy to leave to this world and particularly to our children. There's so much more that I want to say but, this is a blog not an essay or a book. So I will just say thank you, Mr. Mandela and God bless you.

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