Remembering Greatness: Happy Birthday, Madiba

07/17/2014 05:23 EDT | Updated 09/16/2014 05:59 EDT
FILE - In this Tuesday, June 2, 2009 file photo, former South African President Nelson Mandela reacts at the Mandela foundation, in Johannesburg, South Africa, during a meeting with a group of American and South African students as part of a series of activities leading to Mandela Day on July 18th. Israel's state archive has published a 50-year-old letter stating that the Mossad spy service unwittingly offered paramilitary training to a young Nelson Mandela in 1962, and released a number of other documents showing a tense relationship between the Jewish state and apartheid-era South Africa. The release of the documents in the wake of Mandela?s death appear to be aimed at blunting criticism of Israel's close alliance with South Africa's apartheid rulers. (AP Photo/Theana Calitz-Bilt, Pool, File)

Nelson Mandela would have been 96 this week. It's the first birthday since his passing -- celebrations replaced with mourning and reflection. Not just in South Africa, but throughout a world he changed for the better. Over nine decades Mandela undertook an incredible journey from angry young agitator, to peacemaker and unifier of his nation of South Africa, to tackling the world's greatest problems as a founding member of The Elders.

With the passing of Mandela, humanity lost a quiet voice of reason -- one we still sorely need in an increasingly polarized world.

In honour of Mandela's birthday, here are some of our own fondest memories of "Madiba."

The game that changed a nation

In 1995, South Africa was hosting the Rugby World Cup--the first major international sporting event to be held there after the end of apartheid in 1991. Ever the rugby fanatic, 18-year-old Marc and some of his friends pillaged savings accounts and called in parental favours to buy plane fare and tickets to the event. Little did they know they were buying a seat to witness history in the making.

At the end of the final game, clad in the green and yellow uniform of the South Africa Springboks, Mandela took the field and shook hands with the victorious Springboks team captain. The moment was famously re-enacted in the film Invictus starring Morgan Freeman. It was a brilliant demonstration of Mandela's skills as a statesman, using a game to overcome the hatred that had divided his nation for so long. Later that day Marc walked through the streets, almost overcome by the jubilant mayhem that surrounded him. Under apartheid, black South Africans viewed rugby as the game of their white oppressors. But that day, thanks to Mandela, blacks and whites celebrated victory together, differences forgotten.

Leading from behind

Mandela had a way of making the person he was speaking with the undivided centre of his attention. It made conversation with him easy, overcoming the natural tendency to become tongue-tied in the presence of greatness, as many of us do. His humility helped us muster the courage to pose a question to him that had long weighed on our minds: "How did you do it?" How had Mandela managed to accomplish so much--emerging from prison to end a repressive regime without violence, and then overcome generations of hate to bring together a nation? Mandela told us about his boyhood tending livestock, when his family could not afford to send him to school, or even to buy him shoes. His experience as a shepherd, he said, taught him about leadership.

"I led my sheep from behind."

Mandela never tried to be the center of attention or take all the credit. As a leader he was a gentle guiding hand, rather than a stern governing fist. Unlike many post-colonial leaders in Africa he didn't cling to power, choosing to step aside after only one term in office. His selflessness and humility is a lesson we strive always to hold in our hearts.

Goodbye, Madiba

When Mandela passed away last December, Craig joined the multitudes that flocked to South Africa to pay their respects. In a line that stretched kilometres, Craig waited for his turn to view Mandela where he lay in state. As the line progressed, Craig chatted with 47-year-old Le-Ann Pereira, who constantly fretted about playing hooky from work to be there. Seeing Mandela in person had been on her life's bucket list, she said, and this would be her last chance. As she left the hall where Mandela's casket lay, Pereira broke down in sobs. A black soldier stepped from his guard post to put an arm around the blond-haired white woman and comfort her.

Just 25 years ago, such interracial contact at a public event would have been unthinkable. There could be no more eloquent testament to Mandela's legacy.

Thanks for the gift of you

So happy birthday, Madiba. There's nothing we could give you that could match all you gave to the world. The best we can offer is to hold on to your memory, and to try to live up to your legacy.

Brothers Craig and Marc Kielburger founded a platform for social change that includes the international charity, Free The Children, the social enterprise, Me to We, and the youth empowerment movement, We Day.


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