The Meaning of Mandela

Mandela is in the air. Though he is 91 years old, aged and
fragile, his inspiring vision of a society that can be mended is as strong as
ever. I read the New York Times piece on Mr. Mandela ("Mandela Endures as South
Africa’s Ideal," 11/8/2009) and his continued relevance in South Africa and the
world. Described as “perhaps the world’s most beloved statesman and a natural
showman,” Mandela is a hero in his own league. A must-see holiday movie is even
coming out – “Invictus,” meaning unconquerable – to honor his leadership and

As we begin to contemplate a South Africa – or world –
without Nelson Mandela, we should also appreciate what we have right now. Every
time I visit South Africa, I am amazed by the progress that the country has made
in the short period that it has enjoyed a democratic government. Roads are
being built in the rural reaches of the nation, the financial system remains
the most advanced and functional in Africa, and education is moving in the
right direction with new approaches and curricula.

A South Africa that is inspired by Mandela will be no
different from a South Africa with a living Mandela. This is a point of
contention, as Mondli Makhanya of the Sunday Times wondered, “Who will bind
[South Africans]?” The answer is the rule of law, the democratic system, and
the people who have worked tirelessly over the last 15 years to bring a country
up from a system of apartheid to becoming the first African nation to host the
world cup in 2010.

I love Mr. Mandela. He inspired me as a college student to
commit my life to social issues. In 2003 I hosted a brief speech over satellite
during which he offered an audience at Johns Hopkins University the impetus to
work hard to reduce global poverty. He kindly stated that his “faith in the people
of the United States to act in the interest of all the people of the world was
vindicated by people like yourself in [ThinkImpact*].”

Just like his work for the nation of South Africa laid the
foundation for individuals and a country to succeed, Mandela’s words inspired
this young social entrepreneur to find opportunities to heal the world. I know
that Mandela is aging and I respect the many onlookers who wonder if South
Africa has any hope of success when the father of the nation is no longer with
us. But I believe they have underestimated his legacy if they think South
Africa is so weak. The place is vibrant and dynamic, if flawed and complicated.
But it has already seen two successors (and one interim successor) to the
presidency and civil war was averted without the nation making compromises that
undermined its peaceful longevity.

The main barriers to the country’s greatness – to match its
beloved founder’s magnanimity – rest in the HIV/AIDS crisis and whether the
tide can be stemmed soon. Leaders there are now following in Mandela’s giant
footsteps. Expect more great things from South Africa.

*At the time of the speech, the organization was called the
Student Movement for International Relief, which was the exact wording he
offered during the lecture.