Labor of Love Series: The Nelson Mandela Legacy

This is the second post in the Labour of Love series.

The Nelson Mandela Legacy: 

Five Life Lessons

“We must use time creatively, and forever realize that the time is always ripe to do right.” 

― Nelson Mandela

December 5th, 2013 

Mandela died,” Lisa said.  My arm froze in mid-air as I stretched out to reach for a mug high in a cupboard. Goosebumps raced across my arms, tears blurred my vision, and my heart-felt a sudden heaviness. I remembered a time as a sophomore in college when in great ignorance asked one of my mentors, Dr. Lafuno Tshikororo, from South Africa, “How could one country where the majority is black be overruled by a white minority?” Lafuno in her ever-present soft toned patience said, ” Why don’t you go do some research and then come back to me.” I did just that and it changed my life forever.

American Civil Rights Leaders

Clockwise from top left: W. E. B. Du Bois, Malcolm X, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., & Rosa Parks

In the years that followed I grew socially conscious of race, class, poverty, and their place in world history. It influenced me later as a middle school and high school teacher as I taught classes on the African-American Civil Rights Movement; literature; and lectured on the interconnectedness of oppression.

December 5th, 2013 will be forever emblazoned in my mind much like it was for my mother’s generation when John F. Kennedy died. But I will remember it not because a great man died but because a great man lived and chose to live in a manner that exemplified hope and resilience at its finest.

Freedom fighters like Henry Thoreau, Mahatma Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King Junior, and Nelson Mandela left for us an imprint of what is possible when the world tells us no, yet in our heart, soul, and mind we know we must defy the status quo.  

Ghandhi & Mandela

Gandhi & Mandela

Sometimes in the immensity of their lives the details and lessons of the journey fade. I wanted to remember the details of Nelson Mandela’s life and lessons for myself, so that I could one day share them with my daughter, for my own friends and family, and for anyone, who like myself in college, may still need to go do the research.

 Five Life Lessons

1. Belive in Ourselves, Our Lives, Our Humanity

Have faith in who we are, how we live, what we believe. Our families matter even when laws, presidents,  schools, books, the media, and religion may say we don’t matter. Keep going.

“I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination,” he told the court. “I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal for which I hope to live for and to see realized. But my lord, if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” 
― Nelson Mandela

Life Under Apartheid 

Young Coal Miners Apartheid

Young coal miners in South Africa. 1/Jan/1988. UN Photo/P Mugabane.

Nelson Mandela accomplished what many thought impossible. A democratic government in a place where a violent European colonial rule based on institutionalized and government-funded racism was the status quo and supported by the major world powers. He grew up in a country that had no constitution  to speak of and a legal system in which 80% of the people were:

  1.  given the most dangerous, dirty, unskilled, and least paying jobs 
  2. Homeland Graveyard 1/Jan/1982.

    Graveyard outside Ekuvukene, a village in KwaZulu “homeland”, Natal. The infant mortality rate, in 1982, for white South Africans was one of the lowest in the world, for blacks it was one of the highest. In the so-called black “homelands” like KwaZulu – remote, fragmented, unproductive bits and pieces of land scattered around the country – almost half of the children died before age five. 1/Jan/1982. UN Photo/x

    housed in fenced-in, patrolled, labour camps; townships and unfertile homelands based on ethnic
    identity to keep the majority of Africans apart and as a ready labour force 

  3. stripped of all political rights
  4. criminalized for the ownership of land and for living outside a plot that constituted 7.3% of the country’s land
  5. permitted in the other 92.9% of the land only for work purposes and with proof of employment
  6. barred access to formal education and the jobs that followed
  7. taught acceptance of white domination in the

    Passbook that the South African blacks were required to carry. 1/Jan/1985. UN Photo/x.

    Afrikaan language (the language of whites descending from colonial Dutch settlers)

  8. forced to carry passes that detailed each person’s: race; age; work area and schedule; finger prints; address; and jailed and/or whipped if missing


    In 1976 20,000 students turned up to march in the Soweto township to protest the forced Bantu education. The police followed closely. They showed no mercy attacked students of all ages, armed or unarmed without warning. 360 were killed.

9. deemed criminals and whipped, beaten, shot, and/or jailed for any type of peaceful resistance. 

2. Education & Critical Thinking are Vital

Mandela & Education

Mandela & Education

“A good head and good heart are always a formidable combination. But when you add to that a literate tongue or pen, then you have something very special.”
― Nelson Mandela

A Lawyer for the Masses

Mandela's Law Office

Mandela and Tambo Law Firm was founded in 1953. It was the only all black African law firm in the country. Because of Apartheid laws, everyday black South Africans often ended up in court in need of legal rep­res­ent­a­tion. The firm ceased to exist after politics and the anti-Apartheid struggle began to consume most of both men’s time. Its office was destroyed and burned down in 1960.

Nelson Mandela educated himself, became a lawyer, married, raised a family despite living in a system designed to limit him. He fought with many others like Steven Biko with words first, then acts of civil disobedience, and  when all else failed with violence which he never wanted. In 1950 the Suppression of Communism Act  gave the government the right to ban lawyers from practicing, banned the  African National Congress (ANC), the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) and silenced other political, youth and women’s organisations through the detention, imprisonment and exile of officials and activists including Winnie Mandela after  his imprisonment. (see video below)

My Lord, I am the First Accused.

I hold a Bachelor’s Degree in Arts and practised as an attorney in Johannesburg for a number of years in partnership with Mr. Oliver Tambo, a co-conspirator in this case…The African National Congress was formed in 1912 to defend the rights of the African people which had been seriously curtailed by the South Africa Act, and which were then being threatened by the Native Land Act. For thirty-seven years – that is

until 1949 – it adhered strictly to a constitutional struggle…In 1960 there was the shooting at Sharpeville, which resulted in the proclamation of a State of Emergency and the declaration of the ANC as an unlawful organisation. My colleagues and I, after careful consideration, decided that we would not obey this decree. The African people were not part of the Government and did not make the laws by which they were governed. We believed in the words of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that “the will of the people shall be the basis of authority of the Government”, and for us to accept

Sharpeville Massacre

The Sharpeville Massacre occurred on the 21st of March 1960, at the police station in the South African township of Sharpeville in Transvaal (today part of Gauteng). After a day of demonstrations, a crowd of about 5,000 to 7,000 black protesters went to the police station. The South African police opened fire without warning after they were hit with some stones, killing 69 people. Most of the dead were shot on the back as they fled to safety.

the banning was equivalent to accepting the silencing of the African people for all time. The ANC refused to dissolve, but instead went underground. We believed it was our duty to preserve this organisation which had been built up with almost fifty years of unremitting toil. I have no doubt that no self-respecting white political organisation would disband itself if declared illegal by a government in which it had no say.

Transcript from Nelson Mandela’s statement from the dock at the opening of the defence case in the Rivonia Trial, April 20th 1964

Mandela fled  and hid because he chose not to follow the laws that took away his basic human rights.

In 1960 the government held a referendum which led to the establishment of the Republic. Africans, who constituted approximately 70 per cent of the population of South Africa, were not entitled to vote, and were not even consulted about the proposed constitutional change. All of us were apprehensive of our future under the proposed white republic, and a resolution was taken to hold an All-In African Conference to call for a National Convention, and to organise mass demonstrations on the eve of the unwanted Republic, if the Banishment of Winnie MandelaGovernment failed to call the Convention. The conference was attended by Africans of various political persuasions. I was the Honorary Secretary of the Conference, and undertook to be responsible for organising the national stay-at-home which was subsequently called to coincide with the declaration of the Republic. As all strikes by Africans are illegal, the person organising such a strike must avoid arrest. I was chosen to be this person, and consequently I had to leave my home and my family and my practice and go into hiding to avoid arrest. [click photo to see video of Winnie’s banishment.]
Transcript from Nelson Mandela’s statement from the dock at the opening of the defence case in the Rivonia Trial, April 20th 1964

3. Humility & Strong Will

The greatest protest one can make is to live life with joy and embrace the freedom that comes with forgiveness and letting go especially when the expectation is to retaliate.

“As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.” 
― Nelson Mandela

Long Walk to Freedom

free newspaper

Mandela spent 18 of the 27 years in jail in Robben Island. He was confined to a small cell, the floor his bed, a bucket for a toilet, and was forced to do hard labor in a quarry. He was allowed one visitor a year for 30 minutes. He could write and receive one letter every six months. Yet he came out and forgave the government and people that sanctioned his exile.

The CIA under the Kennedy Administration captured Mandela. The South African Government incarcerated him for 27 years from 1964-1990.  It issued a ban order that removed all evidence of Mandelas writings and images from the public domain. He was released after much world pressure and embraced the people, government, and former jailers of the apartheid system. Four years later he became the first democratically elected president of South Africa. As president  he peacefully transitioned his country away from a civil war to a majority led democratic government. 

4. No Leader Is Perfect

History is not made by perfect people but by imperfect people under extraordinary circumstances. Support the people working to make the world a better place for all.

“I am not a saint, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.” 
― Nelson Mandela

An Ordinary Human Being

Nelson Mandela was not a folk legend passed down to motivate the masses. He was real for the world to witness. His passing left me empty. As I immersed myself  in articles about his work against the apartheid; as president of South Africa; and then as a citizen of the world helping solve AIDS, poverty, and homophobia I asked, “How can anyone fill the void he leaves behind?” My answer came as I came across Oprah’s interview with Mandela where he stated:

“I wanted to be known as ‘Mandela,'” he told Oprah back then. “I knew it was not the contribution of one individual which would bring about liberation and the peaceful transformation of the country. And my first task when I came out [of prison] was to destroy the myth that I was something other than an ordinary human being.”
The wedding of Nelson Mandela and Winnie Madikizela, South Africa - 14 Jun 1958

Mandela with his wife Winnie with their wedding party on their wedding day in June 1958.

It is important not to create a super human myth in our minds that keep his message and person at a distance and serve to cripple us from making a difference.  Mandela like us was a man, a father, a son, a friend, a lawyer, a student , a husband. He chose an active part in his own and the world’s need for justice. However, he was not perfect or all-powerful nor was he all for everyone.

The People Are The Movement

Meeting of the United Democratic Front (UDF) in Johannesburg.
01 January 1985.

Mandela, along with thousands of South Africans, gave his time, voice, safety, and life to create a new country based on the democratic principles of a multiparty system, open elections, equal representation, and religious freedom. That is why he stepped down from power after one term and shortly after ‘retired’. He like all good teachers was showing us we are all in this together. We cannot depend on one man, one woman, one movement to bring justice to all who are waiting for it.  We need to be an active part of our own liberation and help others in theirs. Mandela did not improve South Africa for himself or for South Africans, he did it for the world. His efforts affected international governments, laws, and even pop culture.

5. Act, Accept & Include

We should not turn a blind eye or sit comfortable from our earned seat once we achieve our own individual freedoms but help others who are still waiting to live their life free of strife.

“What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead.” 
― Nelson Mandela

The Nelson Mandela in All of Us


UNAMID staff help their community as part of the campaign to commit 67 minutes to community service in honour of Nelson Mandela’s 67 years of public service and contribution to the anti-apartheid movement. UN Photo/Albert González Farran

It can be easy to lean on the giants of history, the people willing to take to the front lines, to be the silent supporters and go on our every day lives. But when those people pass who is left to carry on the good fight? Who will demand justice for all?

The answer is at our dinner table, softball games, church pews, grocery stores. It is in who we sit next to; who we say good morning to on our way to work; who we hold the door for or give our seat up to on a crowded bus; who we remember as we sit down to share meals with our own families.  It is in what we do and very loudly in what we choose not to do.

Mandela was more than a movement he set the example to move us into action no matter where we are in our own journeys. He wanted each of us to take part in making the world better not to depend on someone else to change it for us. That expectation might seem overwhelming when you look at what he accomplished but remember that he was one human, one father, one brother, one teacher, one husband that chose to make every day count. It is in our every day lives that we can carry on his message and choose to act, lead by example, and instill in our children these fundamental life lessons.


Dr. Lufuno M. Tshikororo 1963-1998

Dr. Lufuno M. Tshikororo

In my last two years of college Dr. Lafuno Tshikororo guided me and a small group of young women of color of different faiths, cultures, races, and sexualities to create a support group as we struggled to be students at the University of Vermont campus at a time when it  was 98% caucasian. She helped us see the importance of unity, perseverance, and the power of one.  Lafuno died in a car crash while on vacation in South Africa my senior year. This post is dedicated to her and those like her who foster community building wherever they go.


Share With US

Do you know someone who carries on Mandela’s life lessons? Share their story with us and support the organizations below as they carry on Mandela’s five life lessons.

1. Belive in Ourselves, Our Lives, Our Humanity

World Action: World Neighbors                      U.S. ActionDo Something

2. Education & Critical Thinking are Vital

World Action: Womankind Worldwide            U.S. Action: Connect All Schools

3. Humility & Strong Will

World Action: Every Day Activism                  U.S. Action: Teaching Tolerance

4. No leader is perfect.

World Action: Youth Activist Network          U.S. Action: Emerging Leaders Program

5. Act, Accept & Include

World Action: ONE                               U.S. Action: OCHO: Organization for Community Health Outreach

The series a Labour of Love focuses on people doing every day acts of greatness. Check back with us for our next Labour of Love post on Talmar Gardens where making the world beautiful through organic horticulture and helping people with disabilities be more independent are one. A local Baltimore organization carrying out Mandela’s fifth lesson: Act, Accept, & Include.


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