By NICK CHILES
As the entire globe pauses today to say Happy 94th Birthday to the remarkable Nelson Mandela, I wanted to take a moment to urge parents to stop for a moment and explain to their children on this day how incredible this man’s life has been—and how his courage and strength have made the world community a better place.
In a story on AP, one child called Mandela “the king of Africa,” but I think his influence extends far beyond Africa. I think Mandela is more like “the king of the world.”
When I was a young college student in the 1980’s at Yale, I developed a fascination with South Africa that at times almost bordered on obsession. I took classes from professors who were considered some of the world’s foremost authorities on South Africa and I read every book I could get my hands on. I tried to grasp the evil that still existed in my lifetime that would subjugate an entire nation of people and treat them live prisoners or slaves in their own country. It was like watching a rewind of the history of the United States play out right before my eyes and I couldn’t believe the world community could sit around and let South Africa continue to exist. At the time, campuses were roiled with protests over the apartheid regime in South Africa and the fact that many nations and corporations and universities made millions from investments that were partly derived from the profitability of apartheid. At Yale, students erected tents and slept on the campus green night after night to force the university to divest from any companies that were connect to apartheid. It was a crazy and exciting time.
Little did I know that just five years later in 1990, I would be a newspaper reporter in New York City, covering Mandela’s visit to New York just four months after his release from prison at age 72, standing on a street in Brooklyn and watching this incredible man pass by in a motorcade, surrounded by thousands of fellow cheering, teary-eyed, disbelieving New Yorkers. There was no jaded New Yorker indifference on that day. It is a moment and a day I will remember vividly for the rest of my life. And one that I must remind myself to tell my children about, over and over until they truly understand it. Four years after that Brooklyn day, Mandela would have engineered a successful, bloodless transition to democracy and majority rule in South Africa. During those college days immersed in South Africa’s bloody history, I would have thought a bloodless, nonviolent transition to black rule a virtual impossibility there.
We are alive during the lifespan of this remarkable leader and we owe it to our children to let them know how incredible it is that they are also alive at the same time as Mandela, a man we still will be talking and reading about hundreds of years from now.
In Mandela’s home country and around the world, millions have planned a meaningful tribute to him today: People have pledged to dedicate 67 minutes of the day to volunteer work and projects for the needy—one minute to mark each of Mandela’s 67 years in public service.
Mandela “has changed the arc of history, transforming his country, the continent and the world,” President Obama said in a statement.
At an elementary school in Johannesburg Wednesday, children watched a film documenting Mandela’s life and his years of service and sacrifice along with a photographic display of him meeting celebrities that included Beyonce, Michael Jackson and soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo.
“Nelson Mandela set an example to show us that reconciliation is possible,” said 10-year-old Thakgalo Ditabe. She said she wanted Mandela to know how much he meant to her.
Mandela was joined in Qunu by former president Bill Clinton and his daughter Chelsea.
Photographs tweeted by one of Mandela’s grandsons showed the Nobel Peace Prize winner sitting with a blanket over his knees and with the Clintons and his wife, Graca Machel, at his side. Clinton’s hand is resting affectionately on Mandela’s arm. Clinton has spoken on numerous occasions about how influential a voice Mandela has been in his life, his presidency and his efforts to help others, particularly in Africa, in the years since his presidency.
Nobel laureate Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu said the greatest gift the nation could give Mandela on Wednesday would be “to emulate his magnanimity and grace.”
“Mr. Mandela taught us to love ourselves, to love one another and to love our country,” Tutu said.
Indeed, men like Madiba—his affectionate nickname—come along rarely in this violent, troubled, unstable world we live in. When they are among us, we owe it to ourselves and our children to sit them down and explain what he means. And I believe when we do this, we also do something else: We might be planting a seed in a young mind for one of our children to become their generation’s Nelson Mandela.
Hey, you never know.
Happy Birthday, Mr. Mandela. I love you. The world loves you.
Mom. NY Times bestselling author. Pop culture ninja. Unapologetic lover of shoes, bacon and babies. Nice with the verbs. Founder of the top black parenting website, MyBrownBaby.