by Joanne Lane
18 December 2013. Brisbane, Australia. It’s hard to write about a giant of history like Nelson Mandela. Where do you start? What do you say about someone that not only changed the course of a nation and people in its laws and institutions, but also its heart? How do you sum up the life of a man who embarked on a long walk to freedom that inspired millions around the world?
You can’t. That’s the mystery of Mandela. Maybe you can’t define or describe him. Maybe just his name is enough because in that name is everything you want to say – freedom fighter, a man ready to die for his ideals, an image of unity.
Because he lived from his heart he touched our hearts. Across the world in the last week we’ve seen images of kids and old people, white and black, world leaders and people in the street, remembering and celebrating what he achieved, what he meant, what he did.
In the vein of West Side Story, you could hear a collective tune: “Mandela, Mandela… All the beautiful sounds of the world in a single word… Say it loud and there’s music playing, Say it soft and it’s almost like praying.”
Even in my city of Brisbane on the weekend 500 people gathered in Mowbray Park for the Celebrating Mandela Memorial Concert – a symbolic location perhaps by a river that had ravaged and destroyed us in recent years of floods and now a location to honour the life of such a man as Mandela.
While the eventual death of the ailing former first black President of South Africa was anticipated, his death at 95 years last week still came as a shock, perhaps, foremost, because we realize what we lose with his passing and understand we may never see his like again.
Albert Einstein said on the death of Mahatma Gandhi, “Generations to come will scarce believe that such a one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth.”
Is this something we will say of Mandela in years to come?
While it was a privilege to have walked the earth with this man, Mandela’s legacy isn’t finished, it continues in the lives of those that live on without him—us.
In his eulogy, American President Barack Obama called on the students of South Africa and the world to “make his life’s work your own” and for people of all persuasions to search “for his strength – for his largeness of spirit – somewhere inside ourselves”.
That largeness of spirit was his capacity towards forgiveness and reconciliation despite past wrongs, of accepting those that are vastly different, of dignity and courage amidst incredible hardship, and an understanding of what freedom really is and means in one’s spirit.
As a collective whole, we must become his “Rainbow Nation”. No, there may not be a person such as him ever again, but if we do this we can continue to make the world a better place just as he did.
Mandela himself made that call in a speech to support Africa Standing Tall Against Poverty in 2005:
“Sometimes it falls upon a generation to be great. You can be that great generation. Let your greatness blossom. Of course the task will not be easy. But not to do this would be a crime against humanity, against which I ask all humanity now to rise up.”
Mandela’s life was all about fighting injustice. Remarkably much of the world little knew about this struggle until he walked out of a cell in 1990 after 27 years of imprisonment. I was only a high school student at the time but there was something in the dignity in which he carried himself, and the feelings his story stirred, that I chose to give my modern history symposium on him. I don’t know if my 45 minute session impacted anyone else in the room, but preparing for it touched me profoundly.
In 1994 Mandela joined with President F.W. de Klerk to abolish apartheid and establish multiracial elections, a step for which they shared the Nobel Peace Prize. He led the Australian National Congress (ANC) to power and became South Africa’s first black president in its first democratic elections from 1994 to 1997, enshrining within the constitution laws that prohibited government and individual discrimination based on race, color, gender, pregnancy, marital status, age, sexual orientation, disability, religion, birth and an array of other categories.
Of the achievement he said,
“Never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another and suffer the indignity of being the skunk of the world. The sun shall never set on so glorious a human achievement. Let freedom reign, God Bless Africa.”
Mandela’s “long walk to freedom” wasn’t over though and he was aware there were more responsibilities ahead. He continued to address South Africa’s social ills such as poverty, crime and AIDS; problems he admittedly found difficult to tackle, and indeed came to light again even during his memorial service last week.
It seems fitting then perhaps that Mandela asked to be remembered not for his successes but how many times he fell down and got back up again.
In 1995 Mandela handed over a text to the South African rugby captain François Pienaar to inspire him towards their Rugby World Cup win – their image together is perhaps one of the most enduring of his presidency. The text was a copy of “The Man in the Arena” passage from Theodore Roosevelt’s speech Citizenship in a Republic. It is most telling of the way Mandela viewed his life:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.
“The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly;
“who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause;
“who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
How lucky we are that Mandela lived and set an example for us. But now that the great liberator is laid to rest, the challenge for all of us is to dare greatly too and not be discouraged by setbacks. Let us all take up the challenge to be members of the Rainbow Nation.
Joanne Lane is a freelance photojournalist based in Brisbane, Australia.