One Hundred Years of Madiba

Nelson Mandela, in his lifetime, had a way of getting people’s attention. Whether it was living up to his African childhood name of Rolihlahla — “one who shakes the tree” or stirs up trouble — or serving as the first chief of a liberation army connected to his political party, the African National Congress, or going to prison for nearly three decades for his beliefs, or emerging from that prison hell to become the first elected president of a free and democratic South Africa, he commanded people’s attention and could not be ignored.

The same holds true in death. Mandela died at age 95 in December 2013, but less than five years later, South Africa and the world this year are celebrating the centenary of Madiba, the tribal clan name by which most South Africans affectionately know Mandela, their beloved former leader.

All through South Africa this year, there have been celebrations both small and large paying homage to Madiba’s 100th birthday on 18 July. There were prayer services and honorary dinners and lots of gatherings held to remember him. “Be the Legacy” is the official title of a series of events honoring Madiba’s legacy in South Africa, a campaign that encourages others, especially the younger generation today, to step into Mandela’s wide shadow and make it their legacy as well.

As part of those domestic celebrations in South Africa, former U.S. president Barack Obama paid a visit to Johannesburg and gave a moving speech about Mandela’s legacy and the current world situation. And from places as disparate as the Vatican in Rome, to India to Australia and beyond, people remembered Mandela’s birthday this year and what he had meant to them. In the United Kingdom, a grand exhibition was held to honor his life and legacy. The world has not forgotten Nelson Mandela.

And so, it gives me some measure of humble pleasure to join in those celebrations this year, even if from a distance, to partake in the joyous mood of respect and admiration we are seeing around the world in honor of Madiba’s hundredth year.

I don’t mind telling you that Nelson Mandela is the one adult male I’ve ever known, or known of, for whom I’ve had almost total respect as a man. He lived and died by his principles and was unshakable in his belief in the possibilities of the human spirit. Perhaps I am biased because I had the high honor of briefly meeting Mandela here in Japan some years ago (twice!) before he became president, which you can see documented on the PHOTOS page of this website.

Mandela was, as he often said in his later years, not a saint, but an ordinary human being. And as we know now, he showed his own weaknesses at various times in his life. Yet he acknowledged his mistakes and stood tall in his convictions, going forward with his morality intact. He was indeed a moral giant in a world full of immoral midgets and dwarves. (Mr. Trump, are you listening?)

Madiba could have been President-for-Life of South Africa if he had wanted, yet chose instead to step down after one term and pass the spear on to the next generation of leaders. He set a fine example of what the leader of any nation should be, and even more, how a country’s leader could still serve humanity after leaving office. He stood up for people with HIV/AIDS when few others would, among other causes.

He was a hero to many around the planet, myself included. To the people of South Africa, he was the undisputed father of the nation. And in a spiritual sense, he was my father too.

So, let the trumpets keep sounding and the tributes keep pouring in and the celebrations keep going for the 100 years of Madiba. In life and in death, the man we remember as Nelson Mandela — like Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi before him — continues to inspire us to deeper places within ourselves and even higher places outside of us, in a world full of problems that need our unified attention and vision as a human race for a sustainable, secure future for all.

Happy 100th Birthday, Madiba!

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