This year’s Nelson Mandela Day holds special meaning for me. Last year, I had the incredible opportunity to visit South Africa on behalf of Islamic Relief USA for the grand opening of the Nelson Mandela Children’s Hospital. We funded the oncology ward there, and seeing it in person was absolutely breathtaking. You can read more about that awesome project here. Throughout my trip, I got to experience many different parts of the country. Everywhere I went, I saw the impact of a legendary leader, his dreams for his country still growing and bearing new fruit even after he has passed to another realm. To honor his memory, here is a short list of ways we can all strive to embody his spirit of service.
- Hold yourself accountable.
Nelson Mandela made great strides for South Africa and could have easily averted any criticism by focusing on his amazing accomplishments. Yet after his presidency, he admitted that he did not address the HIV/AIDS crisis enough during his term. As a result, much of his post-presidency activism was centered around this issue. He created the Nelson Mandela Foundation and the 46664 organization to combat HIV/AIDS and to spread prevention awareness.
Not all of us are leaders, but we all have responsibilities, people who depend on us and our own individual footprint on this earth. With every “win,” think of where you fell short. This humble attitude, modeled by Nelson Mandela, will help you achieve even greater heights in serving humanity.
- Find common ground. Nelson Mandela’s strategic approach to unity is a lesson we can all use in today’s climate. He brought a racially divided country together with something everyone could agree on to love: sports. He used rugby as a tool to promote tolerance. We all have people in our communities who we struggle to get along with. It could be harmless differences of opinions, or blatant prejudice. Whatever it may be, follow Mandela’s example. The safest bridges are build over common ground—coffee, movies, shopping—find the right excuse to get to know your neighbors.
- Persevere. For 13 years, while in prison, Mandela worked every day in a limestone quarry. This was work designed to crush the human spirit. The harsh sun was so bright on the white stone that it caused permanent damage to his eyes. Yet his spirit never lost sight of his greater goal. Even when put in solitary confinement, a punishment that easily can drive someone insane, he stayed strong. He persevered, and you can too.
- Never stop learning. In his own words, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” Mandela was at the forefront of the fight for equal education, and we can all find ways to continue that effort in our own spaces. But a very easy way to embody this wisdom is to seek education for yourself. It doesn’t always have to be in formal institutions or with a degree at the finish line—we live in an age when knowledge is at our fingertips. Try to learn something new everyday, especially when it comes to understanding ideas that are central to social change and moving your community forward.
- Lead by example. Mandela was known throughout his life for his sense of dignity. During his trial, he said: “I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” Following his example doesn’t mean you have to be prepared to die or face imprisonment for what you believe it. It can be as simple as starting each day with the intention that your actions will align with your words.