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We have yet to heed Mandela’s urgent call

Mandela lived in the service of others in the fields of conflict resolution, race relations, the promotion of human rights, reconciliation, and gender equality, to name a few. As we celebrate Mandela Day, how well is South Africa living his legacy?



Nelson Mandela emphasised the importance of service to others. For the better part of his extraordinary life, Mandela personified this service and few others could or will soon again have the same clout with which to call the world to positive action. To popularise the movement, Mandela Day (18th July) encourages 67 minutes of goodwill. To create meaningful structural change, we need to shift the way we think about goodwill by nurturing individual leadership, innovation, and commitment long after a popular social movement stops trending.

After decades of persecution, 27 years of which he spent imprisoned, Mandela helped to avert a civil war in South Africa by leading a world-renowned reconciliation process. Many critique that process today, and rightfully so as South Africa continues, 20 years into its democracy, to grapple with the aftermath of apartheid. However, the reconciliation that Mandela modelled was of critical importance for ensuring a peaceful transition from apartheid to democracy in an extremely fragile country. It is also important to remember that Mandela never claimed that the reconciliation process he started would be South Africa’s panacea.

Mandela continuously reminded us that there remained much to do if South Africa was to realise its potential. As a pan-Africanist and international peacemaker, he emphasised South Africa’s interconnectedness with, and reliance on, continental and global peace. After his retirement, South Africa owed it to Mandela to leave him in peace and instead turn its attention to heeding his 2008 call for the next generation to assume the responsibility of leadership in addressing the world’s social injustices. “It is in your hands now,” he said. We have yet to heed Mandela’s urgent call.

South Africa continued to lean on its international statesman well into his retirement from public life, in part for his magnitude and magnetism, and in part because we were unprepared to remove our training wheels. When the world’s attention turned to South Africa as host nation of the FIFA World Cup in 2010, local outcry about the exorbitant expenditure on such luxury in the face of growing inequality was muted when a frail yet jolly 92-year-old Mandela was brought onto the pitch at the closing ceremony. Showing the country’s hero looking happy was intended to symbolise that South Africa was doing just fine. In its 2012 centenary celebrations and recently concluded national election campaign, the ruling African National Congress used Mandela’s commitment to the party to distract from its lacklustre plans for a fifth ruling term. Kenneth Lukuko, who heads the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation’s Community Healing Project, said: “While Mandela was alive, South Africa thought it could walk on water. Now that he’s gone, we need to learn how to swim.”


It is in your hands [1000 x 583]

Leadership can be an intimidating concept, but individuals must be helped to realise that it comes in all forms. Making a meaningful difference does not have to come at the same expense that it did for Mandela, but can and should also go well beyond conventional charity work. In order to live his legacy, we must engage in positive social change, not a commitment to ‘service’ that reifies the status quo.

Despite the resilience of the human spirit, a fractured society does not spontaneously heal itself. Individuals may recover from trauma through personal efforts, but an ongoing and inclusive process is required in order to nurture authentic societal healing. This is why it is so important that movements like Mandela Day are leveraged for their ability to highlight social justice issues and ignite individual actions that have the potential to develop into collective change. Like Mandela’s long walk to freedom that began with a single brave step, so Mandela Day should serve as the catalyst for sustainable change in our society. It should be marked by participants each taking a step towards recognising their personal power, and how that power can be magnified through individual commitment and solidified through unified action. To contribute to building a better society, we should engage the inherent value of those that we live among, especially people who are already working towards positive change at a grassroots level – those whose efforts so often go unrecognised – and empower the next generation to understand their innate capacity to be positive change-makers.

The man is finally resting, but if realised as intended, Mandela Day could help an important legacy to echo through the ages.
This year, the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation will commemorate Mandela’s legacy through its annual Reconciliation Award, which seeks to acknowledge an individual or organisation that is doing significant work towards bringing about reconciliation in South Africa. Nominees for this year’s award, themed “living reconciliation”, must demonstrate a track record of having brought people of different backgrounds together through inclusive dialogue. Nominations close on Mandela Day, 18 July 2014. More information is available and nominations can be cast on the IJR website (