Nelson Mandela: A hero for all

Kristyn PankiwBy Kristyn Pankiw |

On Dec. 5, 2013, Nelson Mandela passed away.

It hit me unexpectedly, although I’d known it would eventually come. Even this summer, when I heard he had been hospitalized for a lung infection, I held out hope. Hope that there would be time enough yet to meet the man who changed my life so profoundly.

As a child, I first learned about Mandela when he was a guest on the Oprah show. I was instantly in awe, hanging onto his every word and wondering how one person could affect an entire country — and arguably the world — so significantly.

For years, I wrote letters and sent emails to those I thought could help me make my dream of meeting Mandela come true. I read biographies, borrowed books from the library about Apartheid, memorized quotes and watched as many interviews of him as I could. I wanted to shake his hand, look him in the eyes and tell him thank you.

He was my biggest role model. My hero.

Some people don’t understand this. Why would I — a white, American, 20-something woman — view Mandela this way?

The fact that I’ve been asked this question proves exactly why we needed him as our hero. We, as a collective whole — humans crossing international borders and bodies of water — needed him to help us see that equality exceeds race, nationality, age, gender and everything in between.

Nelson Mandela changed the course of history over his lifetime. He was a symbol of freedom, hope and love, transcending boundaries of constructed race as he fought for equality. He did not back down in the face of adversity, but persevered through 27 years in prison, eventually resulting in a presidential term and a nation transformed through the power of justice and grace.

His experience did not taint his attitude and passion; he continued to fight for truth, and in the process, enlightened the hearts and minds of humanity around the world. His actions sparked change, not just in South Africa, but everywhere.

Nelson Mandela showed me how to love — greater, deeper and stronger than before. He opened my eyes to injustice, to my own hidden prejudices, and taught me about humility and integrity. Because of him, I refuse to settle for inequality. I refuse to turn my back to discrimination, and I have promised myself that I will always use my words to speak truth and stand up for those who need it. Mandela showed me I could be a voice for good in this world, that I have the power to change it in my own way.

So to Mandela, I say thank you. Thank you for your courage, your determination, your sacrifice. Thank you for challenging us and teaching us so much about ourselves and others. Thank you for opening the eyes and hearts of so, so many. You will live on in all our souls, and we will never, ever forget.

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