During the summer of 2006 I read a book that undoubtedly helped to share my ideals on politics, race and the resilience of mankind.
As the world today mourns the death of Nelson Mandela, I look back to that summer and what my sister-in-law jokingly called “a long walk to the end of the book.” The book is lengthy, yes; at over 600 pages, Long Walk to Freedom is one of the longest autobiographies I’ve ever read, but it was also the most influential.
I remember smiling as I was introduced to a boy who was affectionately known as “Rolihlahla,” which loosely translated to “troublemaker.” I’m not sure if Mandela’s parents knew what kind of trouble their child would get into, but it’s certainly a species of mischief that I wouldn’t mind having a child cause.
I remember being impressed by Mandela’s leadership that he saw simply as doing the right thing and refusing to stray from the dignity that he and all humans have.
I remember reading the speech that his wife had begged him not to give during his sentencing trial. The words still shake me today:
I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities…It is an ideal for which I hope to live for and to see realised. But… if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.
What courage it takes to stand before people who can decide whether you are to die or to live and proclaim to them that you are indeed, prepared to die.
I remember seeing him on a TV interview and asking what the topic of the day was. He was surprised when the host said, “Nelson Mandela.”
In my mind, Nelson Mandela epitomizes two things lacking in several leaders today:
1.) He had a cause that he felt so passionately for that he was willing to suffer for it. He fought against the status quo because he believed in a cause. He went to prison because he believed in a cause. He refused to compromise for his cause. He was willing to die for a cause. How many people can so selflessly act for what they believe?
2.) His mission wasn’t about himself. It was about the cause, which he believed was so much bigger than he could ever be. Nelson Mandela’s humility will be one of his longest lasting legacies, and I’m not sure that in our future we will see another one like him. In all honesty, I don’t think he knew how great his influence was simply because he didn’t look to promote his name. He promoted human dignity.
Nelson Mandela ends The Long Walk to Freedom with words that I’m certain will touch anyone who has been inspired by his journey:
I have walked that long road to freedom. I have tried not to falter; I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. I have taken a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come. But I can rest only for a moment, for with freedom come responsibilities and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not yet ended.
I join the many who mourn the legendary Nelson Mandela in saying, “Rest now Rolihlahla. We’ll walk the rest of this journey, inspired by your virtue, prodded by your actions and grateful for the humble leadership that you generously gave us.”