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Celebrating the life and legacy of Nelson Mandela

Mandela’s legacy is in our hands and this moment in history should be an opportunity that we should not waste.
Nelson Mandela, photographed on June 11, 2005 in Tromso, Norway.
Nelson Mandela, photographed on June 11, 2005 in Tromso, Norway.

Three celebrations for one great man: The first was of the people, for the people, an unplanned outpouring of love for Nelson Mandela in the streets surrounding his home. The second, organized by his dear friends, former freedom fighters, world changers and even a few rock stars, was spiritual and soaring.

And then this one, today, a gathering of tens of thousands of South Africans, dozens of presidents and prime ministers, celebrities and store clerks, was rain-soaked and sombre, an acknowledgment of Mandela’s contributions to the world.

The first two had a lot of heart and humanity. The third was somber - and at times stirring, but lacking a true sense of how South Africa is celebrating the life of their beloved grandfather.

Even though I had an access pass, I got up at 4 a.m., and was in line at 4.30 a.m.

Call it youthful exuberance, but I didn’t want to miss a moment.

There were others in line before me. Kids with hand-painted signs and a lot of hope, and old-timers who remembered the horrors of apartheid and wanted to honour the man who went to jail for 27 years because of his opposition to it. All of us were anxious for today’s event, billed as the largest state funeral since Winston Churchill died in 1965. Metal detectors and an estimated 15,000 security forces infiltrated the crowds to watch over those in attendance.

When Canadians only saw one event, todays, with all of the world’s press in attendance, I wanted to review how it felt like to be at each of these events, to share the feelings of how this nation is mourning.

The impromptu event at Mandela’s house was loud, disorganized, and deeply emotional. There was an older gentleman in a three-piece suit who walked up to the gate, placed a bouquet on the ground and saluted. Tears poured down his face. Flowers piled up to the height of my waste, as bands led by tubas marched by. People spontaneous chanted his clan name “Madiba”, while raising their fists into the air.

The second memorial was at the Nelson Mandela Freedom Centre, which is usually off limits to the public. It was hosted by the Nelson Mandela Foundation in Johannesburg, whose motto is: “Living the Legacy.” In the audience were many of Mandela’s friends from the days of apartheid. Mandela’s old friend Archbishop Desmond Tutu led the service at the heart of the event. Mandela’s former lawyer was there, as were other freedom fighters. So, too, were more ‘global friends,’ such as singer and humanitarian Peter Gabriel, along with former Irish President Mary Robinson. Emotion was heavy as they shared old stories, sang freedom songs, and laughed at their favorite memories of a Mandela many of them have known while he was still a fallible fellow man, and long before he reached the revered status of an icon.

Today’s main event was heavy on rain, lighter on emotion. The crowd was more sparse than predicted, no doubt because of the rain, but dwindled as the day went on. Leader after leader spoke. Many of then quoted Mandela and evoked his body of good works and causes.

Many called on those in audience to live Mandela’s legacy by doing good, or at least doing better. This sentiment was greeted with loud applause.

It’s easy to quote Mandela, but it’s harder to model it. No one stood up to announce legacy projects in Mandela’s name, or announce that they would build a different world for their citizens, even though U.S. President Barack Obama implored them to.

“He makes me want to be a better man," the president said. "He speaks to what's best inside of us. After this great liberator is laid to rest, and when we've returned to our cities and villages and rejoined our daily routines, let us search for his strength, let us search for his largeness of spirit somewhere inside of ourselves." 

The first celebration brought the heart. The second brought the sincerity of great friends. The leaders lacked the authenticity deserving of tributes to the great man. It’s easy to wrap oneself in the name of Mandela, more difficult to take actions that embody his legacy.

If the leaders in the audience were true to their words, and those of Mandela, the world would be a much better place. Mandela’s legacy is in our hands and this moment in history should be an opportunity that we should not waste.