After all of the talk, stories, debates and controversy that people stirred up in the passing of Nelson Mandela, I feel like I – in my privileged existence – need to add my two cents by stating the obvious: Mandela was human.
Just like everyone else, he was human; this does not diminish or belittle his achievements, in a lot of ways it makes them all the greater. Because being strong and doing what is right, challenging yourself to come up with new ways of accomplishing your goals, even when you have failed in the past… made mistakes in the past… Mandela was human but he was strong and his convictions changed his nation and the ripple effect was felt throughout the world.
No one has a right to judge or question his choices; right or wrong, the end is what we have now and while it is by no means complete or utopian, Mandela gave his people and the rest of humankind a starting point. He was a catalyst, what happens after him… what people do in honour of him, his legacy and for themselves will be the true testament of how much he changed humanity in his lifetime.
Mandela wasn’t the beginning, he didn’t start the fire; but he was a beacon for people to congregate around – that takes a level of courage that very few people have today, of which we need to see more. So, so much more.
As stewards of the earth, as decent human beings, we have a duty now. All of us have a choice; we can pick up where he left off, look to each other, acknowledge that what he did in his life was a great thing and then ask, “What else can we do to make the world better for everyone?” And then be active participants in making it happen.
Because it’s more than just being supportive. Very often, supportive amounts to sitting in the shadows silently cheering on progress, while never getting our hands dirty, never taking risks to bring about positive change in society. Because the passive, quiet, silent role doesn’t take courage.
What happens when we do not speak out against atrocities? By remaining silent, we condone them; we become tools to be exploited to continue unacceptable behaviour and systems that beat and grind down others. It is only when we take the active role, when we confront those who say and do things that are hurtful to others, when we support openly when others also question the caustic social norms of today.
Change happens only when we demand it. It does not happen in silence. Being strong is when we raise our voices, stand up, support those who do the same when others try to tell them to sit down/shut up.
I do not keep role models; in my experience, no human is perfect and placing them upon a pillar seems unfair to me. However, characteristics are a different matter. Observing a trait in another person and admiring that, emulating the trait, embracing it as something I want to have myself, is something of which I approve.
So if you needed my permission (doubtful), look at the things that made Mandela who he was; his courage, his compassion, his determination, his intelligence… these are wonderful traits to have and the South African people have every right to be proud to call him one of their own. He is to be celebrated now and likely in weeks to come, and rightfully so.
But the greatest way to honour his legacy is to not let it end with him, and that cause falls on the shoulders of everyone in the world – not simply with South Africans. So the next time you hear someone use a racial slur, or see someone unfairly targeting another person based on their ethnicity, gender (binary or non-binary), sexual preference, religious beliefs (known or assumed), clothing, ornamentation, physical or mental abilities… Stand up, be strong, be the person, be the voice that says, “what you’re doing to another human being is not okay. It is not acceptable behaviour and it must end.” Be firm when they tell you that you’re being “too P.C.”
If you see someone who is standing up, stand with them, be the person, be the voice that says, “It is not wrong to not to be offensive to others.”
Say it to friends, say it to coworkers, say it to strangers on the street, say it to family, because it’s important and the world cannot wait for someone else to do it for us.