The custodian at my high school once told me that the best moment of her life was the day Nelson Mandela was released from prison. All other occasions — the birth of her children or her wedding, for example — would have meant so little, almost nothing, without the promise of freedom. “What would it have meant?” she asked, repeating the question passionately and shaking her head every time I suggested another occasion. I left that conversation with the same sense of wonder that I felt every time I heard his name: Madiba, Tata, the “Father of Our Nation.”
Despite the numerous opinion pieces that speculated the world’s possible reactions to Nelson Mandela’s death, when I heard the news I didn’t know what to feel.
At first I felt frustrated. I hated the idea that so many articles had been written about Mandela’s death here before South Africa, which is seven hours ahead of the east coast, had even woken up to the news. I was angry that I had to be here: Here didn’t understand. Here his death was just a talking point, a Facebook share, or, as one student put it, “kind of ideal for the producers of his movie.” I didn’t want to read what Obama had to say about his passing, I wanted to wake up to the news with my people and mourn this loss, our loss, together.
But the more rational voice inside me reminded me that his death meant just as much to anyone else, anywhere else, as it did to me. I had no reason to feel personally afflicted — Mandela was not present in my day-to-day life and had ceased to appear in public many years ago. Despite being born two years after his release from prison and two years before he was elected president, I still saw Madiba as a legend, a personified ideal. He represented to me all the same things he did to everyone else — an unparalleled sense of forgiveness, equity and humility — and the loss of such a powerful icon is a loss to the whole world.
That is true, but the deep sense of sadness I feel at his passing is not a personal one. Instead, it is sadness for my country. Despite what some foreign journalists seem to claim, Nelson Mandela’s death will not propel our country into chaos. His death, just like his last years of life, will likely have no direct effect on our political situation. But Madiba is a symbol for our incredible victory over oppression, and often that shared triumph seems like the only stable thing to which all South Africans can cling. His death, in many ways, will force us to once again acknowledge all the battles that we have not yet won. While his release from prison provided South Africans with the enduring promise to freedom, for many in South Africa and all over the world, it is still far from an experienced reality.
Mandela was the first to acknowledge this deficiency. He once said that South Africa’s freedom is incomplete if others around the world live without it. As we all celebrate the great life of Nelson Mandela, let’s hope that his enduring words do not only spur us to recognize his inspiring fight for freedom, but also his challenge to the whole world to continue that endeavor.
Nicola Soekoe is a sophomore in Timothy Dwight College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org