Nelson Mandela marking South Africa's National Day of Peace and Prayer, Johannesburg, September 1993

As we came together to plan the national memorial service of our world’s father, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, it dawned on me that we were planning the impossible. We were trying to package what could never fit in a box. No one title could completely encapsulate Mandela. He was a freedom fighter, a visionary, a change agent. He was an attorney, a dissident, a contrary spirit. He was a target, an outlier, a misfit. It is too tempting, especially as we are grieving his passing, to make Mandela look like how we desire to see him. It is time to look at him for all he was.

The story of Mandela is one we cannot afford to water down, starting with the significance of his name. Affectionately called “Madiba,” he was a member of a Xhosa clan, one that has rich tradition, culture and values. His father gave him the name “Rolihlahla,” which when translated means “troublemaker.” From birth, Nelson Mandela was destined to hold true to the greatness of his ancestors, while also never hesitating to rock the boat in pursuit of a better tomorrow.

The boat Mandela rocked was already in choppy waters. South Africa enacted one of the most despicable and repressive regimes, apartheid, or literally translated, “apart-hood.” Pursuant to his namesake, Mandela was trouble for those who wanted to maintain the status quo of discrimination. He risked his life, making the decision to take up armed struggle against a government that slaughtered nonviolent demonstrators in Sharpeville. He risked his liberty, serving a life prison sentence on an island away from his wife and children. He risked his reputation, thwarted not only by the South African apartheid government, but by the United States government, as well. He was labeled a terrorist by both governments—a slander that was only removed from the books in the U.S. in 2008 due to efforts led by Rep. Barbara Lee.

Yet and still, neither the judgments of powerful governments nor the isolation of Robben Island could shackle the unwavering essence and values of Mandela. While removed from society, he remained a student of humanity, studying both the flaws of mankind and the power of the human heart. Behind bars, where even the food ration afforded an inmate was dictated by the hue of one’s skin, Mandela was an encourager, and lived above the prison number of 466/64. Mandela understood that striving for peace was far more threatening than a gun, and combating hate could make one more dangerous than a rebel. A chained lion is still a lion, and the fight in Mandela toward freedom was far greater than the fight against him.

While mortality is something we all will face, Mandela was a giant whom we all wanted to live forever. But more than memories, he left us with a challenge to continue the fight against global apartheid.  Whether we are looking at the wide economic gap between the haves and the have-nots, the inability for full-time workers to make a livable wage, discriminatory laws that result in school-to-prison pipelines or the continued attack on the democratic process and the right to vote, Mandela’s fight is an ongoing one. If Mandela were here, he would talk about the rights of immigrants who enrich our nation, yet are forced to live hidden lives for fear of deportation. If Mandela were here, he would talk about our youth in Chicago, New Orleans and Philadelphia. If Mandela were here, he would address environmental justice and the need to respect our natural resources. Mandela’s legacy transcends South Africa and serves as a blueprint for social restructuring.


Reflecting on Mandela’s legacy need not be a one-time affair. We are called to continue his fight against injustice. We are challenged to use our respective platforms to repudiate discrimination. We are summoned to partner with friends and unlikely allies to alter the trajectory of greed and gluttony that abandons the working poor.

It has been an honor to be a part of the ceremonies that commemorate Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela’s unselfish contributions to all of mankind. We will celebrate his mark on this Earth, his models of justice and reconciliation and the entire man. The time has come to reflect on his legacy—and be the rest.

Nicole Lee is president of the TransAfrica Forum.

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