Nelson Mandela, one of the only remaining real-life super heroes of freedom and equality, has died. He was 95. It might seem a bit strange to commemorate him here, in a pop culture blog, but even though Mandela was a politician, he was a figure who played in our collective imaginations. His quotes are the subject of many a gym room or art room or English room poster, and his book, Long Walk to Freedom, is required reading for anyone who believes individuals can change the world. Here in the U.S., he has always been the last surviving Man Who Changed The World, outliving Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi and the Kennedy brothers. He’s the kind of guy we love to deify, and his story, of spending 27 years in prison and changing an unjust system of government from inside that prison, is rightfully a legend.
When I was an exchange student in South Africa, in 1999 and 2000, I remember being surprised at how the people I met didn’t talk about him like a god. In South Africa, Nelson Mandela was a real man, a charismatic and effective leader but still a politician barely out of office when I got there. Everyone who talked to me about him, black people, white people and otherwise, had a complicated but terrestrial love for Mandela. He was the father of their country in a way, and everyone has a multifaceted relationship with their father, especially once they are old enough to recognize their father as another human, just like them.
All around the world, people will mourn Nelson Mandela, but we’ll all do it in a removed way, knowing that his work and courage and audacity will live on as long as humans do. But, in South Africa, the mourning will be more personal. They haven’t lost a god, which is something you can’t lose anyway, they’ve lost a family member. In South Africa, Nelson Mandela is often referred to as Madiba, so for all his family there, I’ll say rest in peace, Madiba. Thank you for changing the world.