When Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was inaugurated in Pretoria on 10 May, 1994, I distinctly remember wondering what would happen to South Africa, where I spent my childhood. By then, I was finishing high school in Virginia, where my peers often asked me about apartheid and the systemic racism that marred our otherwise beautiful nation. When he became president, Madiba had every reason to exact a terrible revenge on behalf of his people. And no doubt those who had suffered so gravely at the hands of white supremacists wanted him to take a retaliatory stance. Instead, he led a deeply scarred nation through reconciliation, showing a generosity of spirit never before seen in an African leader. All of this after spending nearly three decades behind bars. Upon hearing the news of his passing, my first reaction was relief. He had a long life, 95 years full of strife, and the current leadership has disgraced his extraordinary sacrifices with corruption and petty politics. But mostly I feel an incredible sadness, as though my own grandfather has died. Madiba made me want to be a better person; it is he who taught me to be kind and tolerant, to treat all people equally, to live a free life with respect for the freedom of all other living beings. I’m not even half the person he was. But I can try. We can all try. We owe him that.

+ Nelson Mandela Foundation

+ South African Government Homepage