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Nelson Mandela and the Power of Elders

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The world lost a hero yesterday. Nelson Mandela, 95, died at his home in Johannesburg, South Africa, after a long illness.

From prisoner of 27 years to President of his country, Mandela exhibited courage and vision for a country that had feared a bloodbath in its transition to a post-apartheid society. Mandela united the country and averted a bloodbath through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

A less-noted aspect of Mandela’s work was his founding of The Elders on his 89th birthday. With a mission of “offer[ing] their collective influence and experience to support peace building, help address major causes of human suffering and promote the shared interests of humanity.” Mandela gathered Jimmy Carter, Kofi Annan, Mary Robinson, Desmond Tutu, Muhammed Yunus, and others to harvest the wisdom of their years for the good of the planet. Founding member Peter Gabriel explained “In traditional societies, the elders always had a role in conflict resolution, long-term thinking and applying wisdom wherever it was needed. We are moving to this global village and yet we don’t have our global elders. The Elders can be a group who have the trust of the world, who can speak freely, be fiercely independent, and respond fast and flexibly in conflict situations."

While unusual to found an organization at age 89, even more unusual is founding an organization with the purpose of saving the world at the end of one’s ninth decade. Nelson Mandela never lost hope.

Because of Mandela’s unstoppable hope, The Elders have formed a global civil society alliance to work toward ending child marriage, to fight for the release of political prisoners in Myanmar, and to raise awareness and support for peace in the Middle East. And all that in the last 6 years of Mandela’s life.

Nelson Mandela inspires me for many reasons, not the least of which is his refusal to give up on life. In the face of intractable world problems, he wanted all of his years to count, and he held out hope for the world until he breathed his last. Mandela held out a vision for what elders, with their wisdom and influence, could accomplish. And, despite the cynicism of the Western world that relegates its elders to retirement and idleness, he succeeded. Mandela, among his many other accomplishments, showed us how to harness the power of our elders to change the world.

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