Like many people around the world, I came to know of Nelson Mandelafrom a distance, when he was imprisoned on Robben Island. To so many of us, he was more than just a man – he was a symbol of the struggle for justice, equality, and dignity in South Africa and around the globe. His sacrifice was so great that it called upon people everywhere to do what they could on behalf of human progress.
In the most modest of ways, I was one of those people who tried to answer his call. The first time that I became politically active was during my college years, when I joined a campaign on behalf of divestment, and the effort to end apartheid in South Africa. None of the personal obstacles that I faced as a young man could compare to what the victims of apartheid experienced every day, and I could only imagine the courage that had led Mandela to occupy that prison cell for so many years. But his example helped awaken me to the wider world, and the obligation that we all have to stand up for what is right. Through his choices, Mandela made it clear that we did not have to accept the world as it is – that we could do our part to seek the world as it should be.
Over the years, I continued to watch Nelson Mandela with a sense of admiration and humility, inspired by the sense of possibility that his own life demonstrated and awed by the sacrifices necessary to achieve his dream of justice and equality. Indeed, his life tells a story that stands in direct opposition to the cynicism and hopelessness that so often afflicts our world. A prisoner became a free man; a liberation figure became a passionate voice for reconciliation; a party leader became a president who advanced democracy and development. Out of formal office, Mandela continued to work for equality, opportunity and human dignity. He has done so much to change his country, and the world, that it is hard to imagine the history of the last several decades without him.
A little more than two decades after I made my first foray into political life and the divestment movement as a college student in California, I stood in Mandela’s former cell in Robben Island. I was a newly elected United States senator. By then, the cell had been transformed from a prison to a monument to the sacrifice that was made by so many on behalf of South Africa’s peaceful transformation. Standing there in that cell, I tried to transport myself back to those days when President Mandela was still Prisoner 466/64 – a time when the success of his struggle was by no means a certainty. I tried to imagine Mandela – the legend who had changed history – as Mandela the man who had sacrificed so much for change.
The story told by Mandela’s life is not one of infallible human beings and inevitable triumph. It is the story of a man who was willing to risk his own life for what he believed in, and who worked hard to lead the kind of life that would make the world a better place.
In the end, that is Mandela’s message to each of us. All of us face days when it can seem like change is hard – days when our opposition and our own imperfections may tempt us to take an easier path that avoids our responsibilities to one another. Mandela faced those days as well. But even when little sunlight shined into that Robben Island cell, he could see a better future – one worthy of sacrifice. Even when faced with the temptation to seek revenge, he saw the need for reconciliation, and the triumph of principle over mere power. Even when he had earned his rest, he still sought to inspire his fellow men and women to service.
Prior to my election as president of the United States, I had the great privilege of meeting Mandela, and since taking office I have spoken with him occasionally by phone. The conversations are usually brief – he was in the twilight of his years, and I am faced with the busy schedule that comes with my office. But always, in those conversations, there were moments when the kindness, and generosity, and wisdom of the man shone through. Those are the moments when I was reminded that underneath the history that has been made, there was a human being who chose hope over fear – progress over the prisons of the past. And I was reminded that even as he became a legend, to know the man – Nelson Mandela – was to respect him even more.