Nelson Rolihlahla (meaning "trouble maker" in Xhosa) Mandela, who was President of South Africa from 1994 to 1999, died at age 95 on December 5, 2013 in Johannesburg. Tributes have been spread from all over the world, lauding Mandela for his achievements and resilience. One of his most important triumphs was being key in the ending of apartheid, which is the legal segregation of races. Mandela spent 27 years in prison; 18 of them on Robben Island in an 8' x 7' cell, for his actions against the National Party, which was openly racist.
So, what have we learned from Mandela's life? It depends on who you ask. Bill O'Reilly said, “He was a communist, all right? But he was a great man. What he did for his people was stunning. … He was a great man, but he was a communist.” <sarcasm> Every other person on Earth that was asked said something along the lines of how they admired him for his courage and resilience. </sarcasm>
Just because apartheid is no longer legal in South Africa doesn't mean that racism doesn't still exist. There will always be people who choose to carry the burdens of their ancestors into modern times. When the African-American woman at the grocery store actually yelled at me for accidentally bumping her cart with mine, adding that, "[I had] never been a slave," it was apparent that racism (and assumed racism) still thrives in the hearts of some. Fortunately, many people of all races are able to move on. That same night, I was fortunate enough to share a hibachi table with three black people who were completely funny and accepting, and we all teamed up to give the chef a hard time. Had their great-great-great grandparents been slaves? Perhaps. Had my great-great-great grandparents been "masters?" Maybe. I don't know. I don't find it relevant enough to find out. I would act no different no matter what.
What concerns me most about Mandela's death is that South Africa has now lost its living reminder of why apartheid had been made illegal. It's not like he was constantly standing between the races, saying, "If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner." But spending all that time in prison with barely enough room to turn around in, all because he fiercely believed in equality, is a powerful image. Just like Viktor Frankl's experiences in a Nazi concentration camp are extolled time and again not only by Jews, but by all people, Mandela stood for more than black equality. He stood for human equality.
I don't know if I'll ever see the majority in my country embrace their similarities more than focus on their differences. I don't know if Democrats and Republicans will ever agree or if Christians and Athiests will ever be able to hold hands by choice. But when I think of Mandela, as well as Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, Jr. and John Lennon, I feel hopeful. And hope is an amazing legacy.