The Long Walk to Freedom

The long walk to freedom is a phrase synonomous with Nelson Mandela, an incredible human being who touched the lives of so many, not just in South Africa, but around the world. After hearing of his passing last Thursday and watching clips of his memorial in Soweto yesterday, I wanted to write a short blog entry about how he has been an inspiration to me in my life.

When I first learned of Nelson Mandela’s passing, I posted the following on Facebook:

Deeply saddened to hear of Nelson Mandela’s passing. An incredible human being who made his mark on the world in a beautiful way, promoting equality, justice and friendship. Madiba’s legacy will live on and inspire future generations, not only in South Africa but around the world. So proud to have South African roots and to have had the opportunity to learn so much about his work.

I told my boyfriend Sean after finding out and we began talking about how we’d learned about him growing up and the role that his values and teachings had played in our lives. I found myself thinking of my bapuji (grandfather) who recently passed away and the striking similarities between him and Nelson Mandela.

Both were heroes in their own right. Both were young when they began fighting for social justice, participating in anti-apartheid movements and each going through their own struggles- with Nelson Mandela, his life in prison on Robben Island; for my grandpa, escaping to Canada after being blacklisted and spending a year alone in Toronto finding a job and a place to stay so my ba (grandma) and dad could join him. Both worked with youth, had a deep interest in education and social justice and were humble and forgiving. Both also suffered from illnesses, resulting in their deteriorating health;  they were also 95 when they passed away. The parallels of their lives are uncanny and remarkable, how they in some ways mirrored one another.

Throughout school, I would often look to my Indian and South African heritage for school assignments, whether it be a speech on the Taj Mahal, a research report on Mahatma Gandhi and during my undergrad, an insightful research report on apartheid in South Africa and the effectiveness of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) following the end of apartheid and the election of Mandela. It was fascinating to learn about Mandela’s work, to understand what he and those before him, Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr, were working towards, the struggles they endured and ultimately, the results and impact of their beliefs.

Having also heard stories from my parents, grandparents and relatives about what life was like during apartheid and the segregation that took place not just for Africans, but for Indians and other ethnic groups, I have a sense of the impact Mandela’s movement has had since the end of apartheid. The democracy is still new and there are still strides to be made, but Mandela certainly laid the stepping stones and much more, in order for this to happen.

Madiba is an individual who inspired me to volunteer, to give back and help others, with a focus on education and literacy. Three years ago, I travelled to Cape Town for an internship, where I worked with two NGOs focused on promoting education and literacy for youth in South Africa. During my time there, I had the chance to do some sightseeing and one place on my list was Robben Island. From the moment you walk through the entrance and take in your surroundings, it’s impossible not to get goosebumps.

Optimized-robbenislandgatecloseupThe entrance to Robben Island.

Nelson Mandela’s prison cell

One of the most profound moments I had during my time on Robben Island was towards the end of our tour. Our vantage point was of the mainland, with Table Mountain and Lion’s Head in clear sight, blanketed by clouds. The feeling of isolation hit me then and there, realizing what it must have been like every day for those prisoners, seeing how far they were from their families, from their city.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAView of Cape Town from Robben Island

While Mandela’s passing brings sorrow to the hearts of all, his legacy will live on, his actions will continue to inspire others, and his words of wisdom will provide a beacon of light for those who are in need to hope and encouragement.  One of my favourite quotes of his is the following: “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” And this will be so, as future generations will learn about him and his work. He joins a rare group of individuals, leaders who have truly touched people worldwide and will continue to do so.


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