Staff reporter returns from South Africa, reflects on Mandela’s influence

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Bella Isaac’s aunt captured this image of a tribute to the late Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg, South Africa.

On Dec. 5  the world said goodbye to one of its most influential and inspiring leaders.

Nelson Mandela, aged 95, died surrounded by family in his home in Johannesburg, South Africa. Though he remained out of the public eye for nearly a decade—save for one final appearance at the World Cup in 2010—the man known affectionately by his people as ‘Tata Madiba’ was far from forgotten.

As news of Mandela’s death broke, the country’s streets were filled with proud South Africans celebrating their former leader’s long and honorable legacy. His legacy serves as a bond between the otherwise  racially-separated citizens of South Africa. Mandela, the man who brought an end to the tyrannical Apartheid government, will live on forever in history books and the hearts of those whose lives he changed.

I was boarding my plane back to the United States after a 10-day stay in Johannesburg when the leader died. The airline did not tell passengers until 17 hours later when we landed in Atlanta, presumably to prevent mid-flight emotional outbursts from the passengers.

My grandfather’s side of the family lives in South Africa; he was born and raised there by an Indian father and Italian mother. He grew up during Apartheid, an era in South African history of extreme segregation.

White people, or ‘boerkis’ as they call them in slang Afrikaans, were considered the dominant social race. Anyone else—native Africans, mixed-raced people, Indians—were second class citizens, subject to endless cruelty and mistreatment at the hands of the government for years. When tension finally broke and the country was ravaged by protests and violence, it was Nelson Mandela who saved South Africa from utter self-destruction.

When I arrived home, I phoned my grandfather–who will remain in South Africa for several more weeks before returning to the States–and asked him what was happening. He said that countless people had congregated in the city in celebration, bringing flowers and presents to set at makeshift shrines and holding signs that said things like “Rest in peace Tata- We Love You”. It was amazing for him to be back in his home country at such a profound moment in history, and I was sad that I could not be there to share it with him.

For all the good Mandela did, South Africa still has a ways to go; the country’s government and police force is inexcusably corrupt, and many citizens are dissatisfied with the performance of their current president, Jacob Zuma. But people can only hope that things will improve with time, and that the loss of such an important figure will serve as a wake up call to the country’s current leaders.

So, to the man who made it possible for my grandfather to travel freely with his fair-skinned, half-Irish children, thank you. The horrors of Apartheid and the struggle that ensued in order to abolish it destroyed so many lives and families in the process. Without Madiba, the country would never have seen change, and the lives of so many freedom fighters over the years would have been lost in vain.

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