The Iroko Tree has fallen… an icon of gigantic proportion, and I’m finding it hard to explain the mix of emotions stirring in me.
I mourn President Mandela’s passing because his mere presence elicited a strong sense of forgiveness and cohesion in South Africa and beyond. I ponder how, as human beings privileged enough to have been born and lived in his time, we can best honor his legacy. The question is, can we and will we? At the same time, I celebrate Mandela’s incredible life, his immense contribution to world peace, his iconic struggle and his simple humanity. Mandela did it all. Just by being alive he taught us all so much.
I was raised in exile in Zambia, as my own country, Zimbabwe, fought for liberation. My parents were very much involved in the struggle and always kept two photographs on the dining room wall; one of them was that of Nelson Mandela with his hair parted to the side and the other was of the father of the liberation struggle in Zimbabwe, Joshua Nkomo. Even as a small child, these pictures reminded me every day to keep up the struggle for independence and the hope of returning home.
At the frontline of the anti-apartheid struggle and other liberation movements that made Zambia their base, we lived through periodic bombings by the apartheid regimes and saw the fight for majority rule first hand. But whether you witnessed the history he made or you were “born free” in South Africa after 1994, President Mandela touched all of us. His tenacity to fight for his people and his ability to keep the peace and negotiate the demise of what was one of the most oppressive and brutal regimes in modern history set a new standard for justice, racial tolerance, democracy and the possibility of world peace for humanity.
Many years later, when I moved to America as a graduate student, the first piece of décor that I bought was a large poster that filled half of the wall of my studio apartment. It read simply, “Free Nelson Mandela.” Furthermore, and against that literal and figurative backdrop, my choice of school was determined by the strong sense of never wanting to ever be discriminated against because of the color of my skin, so naturally I chose to attend the nation’s premier historically black college Howard University. For me, doing away with that existential risk or nuisance upfront gave the sense of a “soft landing” in what was otherwise a huge culture shock coming from Africa. In many ways, the choice to attend Howard University grounded me psychologically, and prepared me for the return to my beloved continent years later.
I first set foot in South Africa in 2008, when I explored the city of Johannesburg during 48-hour layover while traveling to Madagascar. Oddly enough, that layover was the turning point in my life. Up until that moment, I had been haunted by images of the apartheid policemen and their Alsatians lording over black South Africans for the color of their skin. And now, I had something to replace them with—the images of a cosmopolitan, a rainbow nation filled with possibility and realizing its potential.
And then came 2010’s World Cup, just at the time I had been hired to open ONE’s Africa office. The choice came down to Harare or Johannesburg, mainly because I felt the need to be closer to my aging parents. So I used the month of the FIFA World Cup to give this country a test drive. I found a country that had opened up and was beginning to take its rightful place among great nations. That’s when the bug bit me and I’ve never looked back. Today I’m one among millions of Africans who are privileged to call South Africa home. I am fully aware that if it weren’t for Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo, Robert Sobukwe and other fellow freedom fighters, I wouldn’t be here.
I also feel privileged to continue the work of these freedom fighters through my professional life. As the Executive Director for ONE Africa, a campaigning and advocacy organization that fights the injustice of extreme poverty, I wake up every morning motivated and sometimes jolted by the words of Mandela:
“Overcoming poverty is not a task of charity, it is an act of justice. Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings. Sometimes it falls on a generation to be great. You can be that great generation. Let your greatness blossom.”
Consider the true power of those words: poverty is man-made. Those of us in the development community can become cynical when considering the challenge of eradicating extreme poverty for the 1.2 billion people living on less than $1.25 a day. But then I look to Madiba’s words, and my resolve is steeled. If human actions led to poverty, human actions can end poverty. I believe the only thing that can fill Nelson Mandela’s giant shoes is a social movement by all of us, emboldened by his values and resolve, to pick up where he left off in making the world a better place for our children. That is how we will honour his memory and carry on his legacy. In the humblest of ways, that’s what being a ONE member is about after all. Through simple actions, we will change the course of history. And if we do it right, we can virtually end extreme poverty by 2030.
While he is gone today, his spirit and his legacy will live on and continue to inspire the world, transforming the lives of generations of unborn black people not just in South Africa but everywhere, in ways they will never know. Go well Madiba, your spirit lives on.