Nelson Mandela

December 13, 2013

On Friday, a poster hanging outside Nelson Mandela’s old house in Johannesburg became an instant memorial to the man pictured on it: People who directly benefited from his heroic stand for equality, justice and inclusion, and against apartheid, injustice and exclusion, signed their names and messages across his beaming face, not out of disrespect but with great love and solidarity with their beloved leader, just deceased.

The tributes pouring in from around a world forever changed by his moral and political certitude are, in their way, a version of those scrawls from his fellow South Africans. We may not have shared geography but we shared history and we, too, benefited from his singular example. We all want a piece of Nelson Mandela, even in death. And no wonder.

His is a sanctified territory, one imbued by a full, human life of lasting, indelible impact.

He is the man who found his soul’s freedom in a harsh prison, who overcame the bars that held him with the power of an idea and the strength of his will, who expressed forgiveness in a society sown and stained with hate, who lived out reconciliation instead of retribution.

A liberator for all time, children born generations from now, in lands far from his own, will know his name.

Mandela’s 95-year life spanned the worst and best of our instincts as they played out on a world stage.

The crushing system of apartheid in his South Africa was mirrored by the U.S.’s own evil of segregation. The South African version propped up rule by minority whites over majority blacks, destroying lives and futures with its destructive, even murderous, policies.

Mandela never imagined he walked alone, and expressed great belief in the potential of his fellow man and woman. In a 2005 speech on ending poverty he issued a call to join him in making the world a better place:

“Sometimes it falls on a generation to be great. You can be that great generation. Let your greatness blossom.”

That was Nelson Mandela leaving his signature upon us.

— Courier-Journal, Louisville, Ky.