12/09/2013 12:36 EST | Updated 02/08/2014 05:59 EST

Passing Mandela's Torch to a New Generation of Leaders

A stadium fills with teenage applause as images of inspirational leaders flash on stage displays. Huge applause for Barack Obama, Marie Curie, Thomas Edison and JK Rowling.

But at We Day last fall, Vancouver's Rogers Arena erupted -- like stadiums have in Toronto, Calgary, Saskatoon, Winnipeg, Waterloo, Montreal and Halifax -- when 18,000 young people leapt to their feet to cheer a picture of Nelson Mandela.

For him especially, there was seismic activity.

If there were such a thing as a rock star politician, the man known affectionately around the globe as "Madiba" is one. Today's youngest generation did not witness his historic struggle, release or election. Yet they know his extraordinary messages of equality, hope and forgiveness. And they are ready to receive his torch.

As the world unites in celebration of Nelson Mandela's life, our greatest hope is that his lessons live on. The interconnectedness of all peoples, the power of perseverance, and the path to justice through reconciliation are all concepts we've heard spoken by political leaders.

But Madiba's true gift to the future generations of our planet is his example in living those words.

Our world is riddled with problems that are difficult to explain to our children. War, poverty and climate change. Even everyday issues closer to home, like bullying, violence and homelessness, feel overwhelming. But Nelson Mandela has made talking to our kids about these challenges easier, by talking to our kids about him.

He did not just talk about equality. He and his fellow anti-apartheid activists incorporated equality into their vision of a post-apartheid nation, with white South Africans equal citizens in a democratic system. They did not drive their one-time enemies "into the sea," but instead built a country they could share.

He did not just talk about hope. He clung steadfastly to it while enduring 27 years of imprisonment with no promise of release, let alone what he would eventually achieve as South Africa's first black president. We take history for granted now, but in the midst of his seemingly hopeless confinement, he plotted the political foundations of a post-apartheid nation, learning the language of his captors in the faint chance that his hope would be rewarded.

He did not just talk about forgiveness. As president, he incorporated white South Africans in his government, including three apartheid-era ministers in his cabinet. He invited former prison guards to his inauguration as president and the 20th anniversary of his release. He even visited the widow of apartheid's architect for coffee in August 1995 in a small settlement that remained white-only and still largely only welcomed black South Africans as delivery men.

Because he lived his words, Nelson Mandela was able to achieve a rare feat: he transformed a deeply polarized country into a thriving democracy with minimal bloodshed. He set a broken nation on a path of healing and prosperity. There is admittedly still a long way for South Africa to go, but imagine how many global conflicts and broken nations could use some of his wisdom and strength today.

Imagine the impact on our schoolyards and communities if our young people were taught Madiba's lessons on accepting differences, showing empathy toward so-called "enemies," and forgoing vengeance in favour of reconciliation. Nelson Mandela's passing is a teachable moment of extraordinary potential -- an opportunity to learn directly from a real-life legend of our time.

Our personal way of honouring the impact of Nelson Mandela on our lives and our work with Free The Children was inspired by a visit to South Africa last spring. Craig was traveling there with Governor General David Johnston while Madiba's health was reportedly worsening, and the common theme of education was raised again and again.

One of Madiba's most famous quotations is, "Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world." This sentiment has driven our work over the last 18 years, as we've built over 650 schools and school rooms with the help of thousands of young Canadians.

Just as Nelson Mandela believed the future of the world is in its children, we believe building schools and helping to educate the next generation is the greatest tribute that we can pay him.

After that visit to South Africa, we decided to make this our Year of Education. Together with the more than 100,000 young Canadians who attended We Days this fall, and more than two million kids engaged in Free The Children programs around the world, we are committing to build 100 schools in Africa.

These schools and the children they educate will be one of many lasting legacies of Madiba, in honour of the lessons he taught us and the strength he showed in living them.

Dear Madiba, you have inspired the world's children with your living example, Consider your torch passed.

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

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