Last week the world lost an amazing person when Nelson Mandela, the renowned anti-apartheid activist and first black president of South Africa died at the age of 95. Websites and social media are aflutter with messages and reflections from people who were touched by his indomitable spirit and commitment to human rights. The man who helped end apartheid now belongs to the ages.
Last year when I visited South Africa as part of a delegation through the American Council of Young Political Leaders, I had the rare opportunity to witness Mandela's legacy first hand. Our delegation was to meet with various political leaders from the African National Congress, Mandela's political party of choice and that of black liberation. It was a very special experience because I remember growing up and learning about apartheid — a policy that allowed a 10% white minority to absolutely abuse and condemn the majority black South African population to a life of subjugation and misery.
We all followed the news during the last days of apartheid and recall the eruptions of violence that led up the freeing of Mandela and the subsequent free elections in which Mandela ran for president. I remember seeing images of people who had never voted before standing for hours in lines that stretched for miles just to be able to express their opinion as to the future of their country. In fact, I still have an original ballot from that election that hangs on the wall of my office at city hall — a treasured memento and reminder of the will of people to have their voices heard.
Nobody knew what would happen to South Africa after the white government was replaced by the black majority. No one could predict what the fallout would be from years of abuse and neglect. But Mandela was a man of all seasons and the right person for the right time. He proved to be a person who remained true to his ideals either as a lawyer fighting to protect the rights of the oppressed, a jailed political prisoner of conscience or as the leader of the ANC and its candidate for president. Mandela never wavered in his believe that freedom comes with responsibility. In his autobiography he wrote, "For to be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others." And he enhanced freedom not just in South Africa but around the world as an example of reconciliation and forgiveness.
Today, South Africa still faces many challenges. It has high unemployment and a struggling economy. The generation of South Africans coming to age to vote today are called "Born Free" and don't remember a life under apartheid. They acknowledge that their country has a long road ahead but they are all optimistic about its future. Everyone I met didn't see a future without the inclusion of everyone else regardless of their skin pigmentation. I saw only one South Africa, like a phoenix from the ashes, rising above a history of torture and war. And this attitude is the enduring legacy of one person, Nelson Mandela.
Most people may not know this, but South Africa's national anthem is sung in five languages (Xhosa, Zulu, Sesotho, Afrikaans and English). In fact, South Africa has 11 official languages but these are the five most common. After the end of apartheid, Mandela decided that an important way to heal the wounds of his county was to combine the anthem of the anti-apartheid activists with that of the ruling white government and create a new official national anthem titled "God Bless Africa." The anthem is yet another example of why Mandela was the "real deal." He didn't just talk the talk but walked the walk. We can learn a lot from Mandela and the life he led. And despite our arrogance as a beacon of freedom, we have a lot to learn when we live in communities that use partisan politics to tear each other apart or when we get jittery at the first sign of something that doesn't fit within the paradigm of what we consider to be "the norm." Using our freedom to enhance the freedom of others — even those with whom we disagree — is the most appropriate tribute to Mandela and one that will resonate far more than any Facebook or Twitter message.
ARDASHES 'ARDY' KASSAKHIAN is the Glendale city clerk. He can be reached via email at AKassakhian@ci.glendale.ca.us.