Changing the world begins with a crystal clear vision of what you want and what you don’t want. Nelson Mandela knew that he was “born free” but had never had the opportunity to “live free.” As a matter of fact, he knew, at an early age, that his freedom had been stolen and he wanted it back.
As the world mourns the passing of the first black president of South Africa, I think back to the day when I stood in the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., in 1990 with other select individuals affiliated with the Office of the Speaker of the House of Representatives. We waited with anticipation for the entrance of Nelson Mandela, the great anti-apartheid leader in South Africa, who had been a political prisoner for 27 years, who had been recently released and was making appearances throughout America and in major cities around the world. When he entered the U.S. Capitol Building, he was wearing his heartwarming smile, and his arms were outstretched above his head.
Indeed, those of us desiring a “glimpse of greatness” were not disappointed. As I stood alongside the rope-draped red carpet, I watched intently as Mandela came forward. When he walked in front of me, I reached out and touched his gray suit sleeve. It was a moment I shall never forget.
What inspired me so on that day was the fact that Mr. Mandela had spent 27 years as a political prisoner, the same number of years I had been alive!
How could one smile from his heart and reach out in love and grace to all he encountered with malice toward none — even his enemies? How could he be better and not bitter after spending almost 30 years in prison, because he simply wanted his people to be treated like human beings?
Nelson Mandela never lost sight of his vision. It was always crystal clear. He wanted to see a South Africa that was rid of apartheid and all forms of racism and discrimination.
Instead of a divided country based on race and skin color, he saw a South Africa that was a democracy, giving everyone an opportunity to vote for their government leadership and enjoy the civil rights and the freedoms associated with a democracy. He saw a South Africa where people of all nationalities and ethnicities could live together in harmony. Mandela knew that anger and bitterness could not bring healing and racial reconciliation to his country.
Nelson Mandela knew the high cost of his vision. He knew the high price for freedom. He knew it would mean sacrifice, and more sacrifice and then even more sacrifice for what he wanted and what he knew South Africa needed more than anything. Mandela once said, “Real leaders must be ready to sacrifice all for the freedom of their people.”
Separation from his wife, Winnie Mandela, during his extensive years of imprisonment was a major sacrifice. He is on record stating his serving of prison time was far less severe than it was for her having to live without her husband at home, rearing their two daughters alone.
Even though he was in prison, their daughters have publicly recalled the power of his fatherly influence in their home while they were children. Of course, the painful end of their 38-year marriage was also another sacrifice on the altar of leadership.
True leadership encompasses vision, courage, compassion, creativity, innovation, expertise, strategy and focus.
Nelson Mandela embodied all of these characteristics, which allowed him to keep a laser-beam focus on his vision, keeping it his No. 1 priority until it became a reality. Great leaders change their world for the better, whether it is their home, workplace, church, community, region, state or nation. We should all feel empowered to change our world, given Nelson Mandela’s phenomenal leadership and success in South Africa.
Many believed transforming South Africa into a democracy would be impossible. Mandela responded by saying, “It always seems impossible until it’s done.” As president of South Africa and co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize with F.W. de Klerk, Mandela could say, “Mission accomplished!”
The reach and extent of Nelson Mandela’s influence and inspiration is immeasurable. People are weeping and hearts are heavy around the globe. Mandela once said, “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”
How blessed we are to have lived in the world while Nelson Mandela was in it.
Quantalane Henry is a journalist, educator, minister and motivational speaker.