Like many the world over, yesterday’s news of Nelson Mandela’s passing at the age of 95 left me in awe. Not only because we were forced to say goodbye to the anti-apartheid icon but just four days prior I had just returned from Nelson Mandela’s homeland of South Africa. So the former president of South Africa’s death was surreal, hitting me in a way it likely wouldn’t have before.
Just last Monday, I visited Robben Island in Cape Town where Mandela was imprisoned as a political prisoner for 18 of his 27 years behind bars and even saw the inside of Mandela’s 8 x 7-foot prison cell.
On Wednesday, I stopped by Nelson Mandela Square, an open public space with a towering statue of Mandela himself adjacent to Sandton City, which houses some of the finest shops and restaurants in South Africa.
This past Saturday, I visited the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg where I got a firsthand account of the rise and fall of apartheid, a former policy of racial segregation and political and economic discrimination against blacks in South Africa, and the temporary Mandela exhibition where I got a closer glimpse into the life of the first black president of South Africa. I then visited the Mandela House, the former home of Mandela from 1946-1962, in Soweto.
As I got ready to depart South Africa on Sunday, I rode across the iconic Nelson Mandela Bridge (which was symbolically named after Mandela for his role in uniting South African society) before saying goodbye to the country I fell in love with in eight short days. I never could have imagined that the world would be bidding farewell to Mandela himself a few days later.
Having the opportunity to literally walk in the footsteps of Mandela and so many other South Africans who suffered through apartheid between 1948 and 1994 was a surreal experience—even more so now. To become fully immersed in Mandela’s powerful impact on not just South Africa but the rest of the world and learn of his passing in the same week was quite the shock at first but I then realized that his transition should be a celebration, not a time of grief.
Mandela represented what many of us only strive for. As President Barack Obama said in a press conference last night, “…We’ve lost one of the most influential, courageous and profoundly good human beings that any of us will share time with on this Earth. He no longer belongs to us; he belongs to the ages. Through his fierce dignity and unbending will to sacrifice his own freedom for the freedom of others, Madiba [Mandela’s traditional clan name] transformed South Africa and moved all of us. His journey from a prisoner to a president embodied the promise that human beings and countries can change for the better. His commitment to transfer power and reconcile with those who jailed him set an example that all humanity should aspire to… We will not likely see the likes of Nelson Mandela again. So it falls to us as best we can to forward the example that he set: to make decisions guided not by hate, but by love; to never discount the difference that one person can make; to strive for a future that is worthy of his sacrifice.”
For his sacrifice and inspiring example, I thank Nelson Mandela for being a revolutionary in the face of injustice, a bold peacemaker when faced with violence, and the hero we all needed him to be. But also I thank him for introducing me to the beauty of both South Africa and its people. My life will forever be changed for experiencing Mandela’s real-life long walk to freedom firsthand.