Normally when I send an open letter, it’s with the expectation that it will come to the attention of the intended recipient. Except today, I know that the person I feel most compelled to directly address will not be there on the receiving end. But I believe a note of thanks is one of the best ways to show genuine appreciation for a gift.
So I am sending a thank-you letter to a man who dedicated to his people one of the most precious gifts of all–his life.
Dear President Mandela:
It’s me, Melissa.
To the many words that have been written and spoken in your honor to mark the moment of your passing, I would like to add these two: Thank you.
Thank you for the preservation of your humanity, under the most inhumane of conditions. No one would have begrudged you the bitterness, resentment, and vengeance that would rightfully be yours to claim after the appalling circumstances of your imprisonment.
But instead you emerged from the darkness as a light. Your example was a beacon–not just for your people, but for the world. In you, we found a model of humanity that showed us who we are need not be constrained by the conditions in which we exist.
When finally you walked free, you wasted none of the precious years ahead of you on mourning the 27 you’d lost. There was simply no room for self-pity, because you were too full with the spirit of ubuntu–exemplified, as you once said, in the story of the village who gave food to a hungry traveler.
You were the very embodiment of ubuntu, that pan-African concept of collective uplift, guided by compassion and empathy. The idea that I am because we are.
And amazingly, incredibly, you expanded that “we” to include the very entity that refused to extend that same embrace to you. After all, it was the South African government that was the instrument of your oppression, and the oppression of your people, a government that you had every reason to resist and reject after your release.
And yet you sought a place at the very head of that state, driven by your deep belief in self-governance.
It’s not hard today to find failed attempts at the democratic project. But when you pursued and won the presidency of South Africa, you proved the possibilities and the power of democracy. And you gave the world another reason to believe in it too. For that, I thank you.
Thank you for sharing yourself with all of us. While you are unquestionably a son of South Africa, you have always embraced your place as a citizen of the world. Even as you fought inequality at home, you extended your battles beyond your national boundaries as an ally against injustice abroad.
In particular, the special kinship you cultivated with the black civil rights movement in the United States. You embraced us as your sisters and brothers, bonded by a shared struggle–but also by a refusal to be defined by it. Though our ancestors may never have set foot on South African soil, in you, we found a home. And so, I thank you.
Thank you for holding on, for not letting the end of your presidency be the end of your public life. For walking along with us, offering your wisdom and your service, long after your body was telling you that your own journey was nearing an end.
And even then, even at the very end, when we were still not quite ready to let you go, you held on just a little bit longer, giving us all time to adjust to the idea of an unfamiliar world in which Nelson Mandela no longer lives among us.
Now that sad day has come. Beloved Mandela, we let you go with hearts that are heavy, but also filled with gratitude. And though these words will never reach your ears, I hope your spirit is at peace knowing this:
For your courage,
For your endurance,
For your generosity, and your vision, and your grace,
For all that you were, and all that you continue to be to us,