Few people have left an imprint on earth quite like Nelson Mandela. He was here for 95 years and we were blessed to have him. We the citizens of the world, the 53 million South Africans, the 1.2 billion Indians, the 317 million Americans, the 25 million ex-boyfriends of Kim Kardashian – we were all blessed to have him.
Mandela’s life gave us many lessons and our greatest tribute to him would be to heed some of them. One of the biggest lessons is the importance of sacrifice. Mandela spent 27 years as a political prisoner, 18 of them on Robben Island, and would later say that “real leaders must be ready to sacrifice all for the freedom of their people.” That is certainly inspirational, as I found when I asked people in my neighborhood to complete the sentence “If Mandela can spend 27 years in prison, I can definitely …”
Eleven-year-old boy: “If Mandela can spend 27 years in prison, I can definitely go 27 minutes without video games. Well, not definitely, but probably. … You’re not going to make me sign anything, are you?”
Fifteen-year-old girl: “If Mandela can spend 27 years in prison, I can definitely spend 27 minutes helping my mother in the kitchen. … Do I have to do it all in one day or can I spread it over 27 years?”
Thirty-year-old man: “If Mandela can spend 27 years in prison, I can definitely watch 27 commercials during a football game. Does running to the fridge 27 times count as a sacrifice?”
Middle-aged woman: “If Mandela can spend 27 years in prison, I can definitely spend 27 seconds giving my husband what he wants at night. I don’t know why he can’t get the sleeping pill and water himself.”
Mandela was released from prison in 1990 and, following the end of Apartheid, was elected president of South Africa in 1994. He led the country down a path of national reconciliation, seeking to unite blacks, whites and other races. He showed no bitterness for the punishment he had endured, no desire to strike back at his oppressors. Few people are capable of such forgiveness. Just picture Mandela meeting with two of his fellow freedom fighters (let’s call them Edwin and Joe) just as he took office.
Mandela: “I have called you here to discuss national reconciliation.”
Edwin: “National what?”
Edwin: “That’s a big word. I didn’t bring my dictionary.”
Joe: “I think it means we’re going to let the white people keep their farms.”
Mandela: “Their farms, their mansions, their swimming pools. Why must we take all their property from them?”
Edwin: “Why must we not? Let them live in Soweto with no running water.”
Mandela: “This is their country too. We must not drive them away to other countries. We need their skills: farming skills, business skills … “
Joe: “Exploitation skills.”
Mandela: “They will not exploit us anymore. They will work alongside us for a stronger South Africa. Toward that goal, I am going to appoint some of them to my cabinet. What portfolios should I give them?”
Edwin: “Minister of Economic Oppression; Minister of Injustice; Minister of Mines, Not Yours.”
After serving for five years as South Africa’s first black president, Mandela did something that shocked other leaders around Africa: he stepped down. He neither clung to power nor tried to accumulate wealth. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair described him as “very down-to-earth with a lovely quiet humility to him.”
That humility, a quality we should all emulate, can be seen in his insistence on making his own bed, even while staying at a hotel in Shanghai, China.
Maid: “It would be pleasure to make bed for you, sir.”
Mandela: “But if I let you make my bed, you will send someone to brush my teeth, someone to comb my hair, someone to put clothes on me.”
Maid: “Yes, we do sometimes. We do for Queen of England when she come here.”
Mandela: “You do everything for her?”
Maid: “Not everything. She has man for kissing goodnight.”