THE BLOG

How Should We Honour Nelson Mandela?

06/18/2013 05:21 EDT | Updated 08/18/2013 05:12 EDT

We all have our addictions, and for Marc it's rugby. So when the opportunity arose to attend the 1995 Rugby World Cup in Johannesburg, South Africa, 17-year-old Marc and his friends scrimped and saved to make the trip. Little did he know that he would be a witness to history.

South Africa's racist policy of apartheid had been abolished barely five years previously and the country -- long an international pariah -- was hosting its first major international sporting event in many years. The South Africa Springboks dominated the tournament, winning every game. On June 24, they defeated New Zealand to take the Cup and then, in front of Marc's eyes, magic happened.

For oppressed black South Africans, rugby had always been the game of the whites. Yet, as the triumphant Springboks lined up, Nelson Mandela -- elected South Africa's first black president just one year before -- strode on to the field clad in the team's green uniform cap and jersey. He presented the trophy to François Pienaar, the blond, Afrikaner Springboks team captain, and smiling, the pair shook hands. Marc will never forget the jubilant mayhem that followed. Unified by sporting victory, blacks and whites mixed freely, cheering and partying together in the streets.

That game has been immortalized in photos, books and films. It was a pivotal moment for a divided country that stood at the crossroads between peace and reconciliation, and all-out racial civil war. It was also a testament to the genius of Nelson Mandela for finding the levers to lift people past their fears and prejudices.

With Mandela back in hospital with yet another serious lung infection, we think it only appropriate to celebrate the legacy of a man who was the father of a nation and has served as a positive role model for the world. He oversaw the peaceful transition of South Africa to democracy and racial equality, launched the Nelson Mandela Children's fund to help children living in poverty and dealing with HIV and AIDS, and as a member of The Elders has tackled issues like child marriage.

Mandela has admitted that, but for sheer luck, his life could have taken a very different path. He could just as easily have been another Stephen Biko -- a black South African activist killed in police custody in 1977. With the deprivations and health problems Mandela faced during his 27 years in prison, he could well have died there and joined Biko as a martyr, celebrated in the fight against apartheid, but unknown to the average person outside South Africa. Worse, Mandela could have emerged from prison the same man who went in.

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Nelson Mandela - Free At Last

Our friend, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, knows Mandela better than most -- it was at Tutu's house that Mandela spent his first night after his release from prison in 1990. Tutu once told us that the world would never have met Mandela the statesman had he not first been Mandela the prisoner.

The Mandela who entered prison in 1962 was an angry young man; a left-wing radical branded a terrorist. But Tutu said prison reshaped Mandela's soul. It was there he learned forgiveness, which became the hallmark of his presidency and enabled him to heal some of the wounds between South Africa's two racial solitudes.

It must be said that South Africa still faces a myriad challenges -- poverty, HIV and AIDS, political corruption, rape and other violent crimes are abundant. A South African politician recently told us that South Africa is a third world country wearing a first world veneer. And some charge that Mandela could have done more to address these challenges when he was in office.

Nevertheless, Mandela stands as living proof of humanity's power to transcend even the widest divides and deepest hatreds. That is his enduring legacy.

Just a few weeks ago, we were in South Africa. Touring the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, we trailed along behind a gaggle of South African school children. The final display in the museum is a giant photo of Mandela presenting the trophy to Pienaar. As the museum guide lectured the children, we realized these youth -- raised in a post-apartheid nation -- viewed these events as something from a history book rather than part of their modern lives.

Whatever the future holds, we believe Mandela's legacy must not simply be relegated to museum displays.

Everyone has the power to honour his legacy through simple actions -- have the courage to speak out against a racist or divisive statement you hear, or simply make an effort to reconcile with an estranged friend or family member.

Mandela once told us his secret of leadership was to lead his flock from behind -- a lesson drawn from his childhood as a shepherd. The father of South African peace and reconciliation has shown all of us the path to a better world -- it is our duty now to follow it.

Craig and Marc Kielburger are co-founders of international charity and educational partner, Free The Children. Its youth empowerment event, We Day, is in 11 cities across North America this year, inspiring more than 160,000 attendees from over 4,000 schools. For more information, visit www.weday.com.