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Mandela and youth – lessons to be learned

Elaine Hodgson By Elaine Hodgson Published on May 7, 2016

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This article was updated on June 23, 2016

On July 18th, Nelson Mandela’s birthday, the world celebrates Mandela Day. Declared official by the United Nations in 2009 and celebrated since 2010, Mandela Day is a day on which we remember and honour the legacy of this brave, resilient and charismatic leader who dedicated 67 years of his life, 27 of which he spent in prison convicted for terrorism, to the fight for a better world. Articles, books, movies and works of art have been dedicated to the memory of this brilliant man, a Nobel Peace Prize winner and president of South Africa from 1994 to 1999, who died in December 2013 at the age of 95. However, is it possible to say the younger generations understand and value Mandela’s role in world history?

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Nelson Mandela on the eve of his 90th birthday in Johannesburg, South Africa, in May 2008

A life history filled with courage and loyalty to one’s beliefs

Among the many lessons Mandela taught us, maybe one of the most important is being true to what you believe in. It certainly was disturbing, not to say revolting, to live in a country where you were constantly judged and diminished, and where basic rights were denied to you due to the fact that you belonged to an ethnic group different from the dominant one. Moreover, this was the law, a law that reflected the concepts and feelings of a minority South Africa's population at the time, but a minority that held the economic power. 

By being true to his belief that we can all work and fight for a better world, Mandela (or Madiba, his clan name), with his personal sacrifice, dignity, and will to reconcile a nation, transformed South Africa and the world. He raised awareness of the fact that we should all be recognized as equals as far as civil rights are concerned. His words and attitudes influenced millions and still do to this day. His lifelong fight for justice and equality still inspires people and organizations around the world.

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Mandela at the window of the prison cell where he spent 27 years of his life

The importance of Mandela’s legacy

It is hard to say what would have happened if Mandela hadn’t survived imprisonment, hadn’t won a Nobel Prize, hadn’t become the first black president of South Africa, and hadn’t moved thousands upon thousands of supporters in a concert in London's Wembley Stadium in 1988, where they sang “Mandela Day”. If his story hadn’t become an example of leadership, he might never have left prison or might have done so still being considered a terrorist. 

Now that the world recognizes him as one of the most important leaders for social rights in modern history, it is easy to forget that for many years, decades in fact, he was seen as a dangerous man by many countries and foreign governments. What does this teach us? In a very simplified manner, what we can learn from Mandela’s legacy is that time can make us see things from a different perspective. A man that was considered a criminal for fighting against that status quo became a hero over the years because of his battle against injustice. When he died, most world leaders or their representatives went to his funeral to pay tribute to the great man he was.

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Funeral service of former President Nelson Mandela in Qunu, South Africa.

We should always honor Mandela and his story, see him as an example of a person who could see beyond pre-established concepts and who was willing to give his life for a cause he believed in. We should always be willing to keep his legacy alive and use it to understand that in life it is important to keep our minds and hearts open to new perspectives and be ready to change our minds. Mandela showed this to the world. He also showed that we should all take responsibility for our acts, for the sake of future generations.

Mandela always said he sought comfort and consolation when in Robben Island prison by remembering these words from the poem Invictus (by William Ernest Henley): “I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.”   

A Brazilian teacher and ELT materials writer, interested in education, literature, history and culture.

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