By Jennifer SifferlenColumnist
A week ago today, the world lost a highly-esteemed leader. The Nobel laureate, former political prisoner, five-year president of South Africa and champion of civil rights, Nelson Mandela, succumbed to a long-term illness on Dec. 5, 2013.
South Africans poured into the streets when they heard the news, littering the ground with flowers and mementos. The front page of The Sowetan, a daily South African newspaper, was emblazoned with the words “Goodbye Tata,” referring to their former president with the Zulu word for father.
Mandela was not just a son of South Africa; the entire world mourns his loss.
Upwards of 100 heads of state traveled to South Africa throughout the last week to take part in memorial services, reported BBC News. Google, one of the most viewed sites in the world, displayed a simple, yet poignant epitaph on its homepage through Sunday. A simple line of text reading, “Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, 1918 – 2013” sat below the search bar and linked to a project archiving his life.
Here in the United States, President Obama mourns Mandela, not just as a world leader, but also as a role model. Julie Pace for the Associated Press reported after a speech Obama gave last week that “It was Mandela’s struggle against apartheid that first drew [Obama] into politics.”
Meanwhile, flags were brought down to half-mast across the US in remembrance. Reverence of Mandela, it seems, is a universal feeling.
This admiration, while borderless, may vary greatly by generation in the United States. When racial segregation was at its highest, student protesters “from dozens of colleges campuses across the nation ... boycotted classes, marched, rallied ... opposing American support of the racist policies of South Africa,” wrote Mark Stein for the Los Angles Times in 1985. The generations that witnessed and largely participated in the fight against apartheid are more connected to Mandela.
College students today are much less familiar with the political leader, simply due to a lack of exposure. Mandela has been much less visible in the public sphere since today’s generation of students became politically conscious.
For many of them, all Mandela is is “that guy Morgan Freeman played in the rugby movie,” referring to the 2009 film “Invictus,” a biopic centered around the former president’s first term in office and his ties to the national rugby team.
Those unfamiliar with Mandela are worse off because of it. His long and monumental life left him with wisdom to spare. Most applicable to the United States as a whole are his thoughts on cooperation.
“If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner,” he wrote in his autobiography, “Long Walk to Freedom.” As the nation grows more politically polarized by the day, the US would do well to heed his advice.
There have been leaders before him, and there will be more to come in the global fight for human rights that has spanned many lifetimes and shows no signs of slowing. But Nelson Mandela has more than earned himself a place in history among the likes of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Susan B. Anthony, leaders who helped the world achieve what some never believed to be possible.
Then again, in the words of Mr. Nelson Mandela, “it always seems impossible until it’s done,” – a sentiment that surely applies to finals week in addition to more noble goals.