South African native reflects on Mandela’s life

Boyd Hayes in Lexington, Ky. on December 5, 2013. Photo by Emily Wuetcher | Staff

Boyd Hayes in Lexington, Ky. on December 5, 2013. Hayes wears a Springboks jersey, the South African rugby team, for which Mandela was an avid fan. In 1995, he used rugby to unite the divided nation when the team won the Rugby World Cup. Photo by Emily Wuetcher | Staff

By Boyd Hayes | Assistant sports editor

One of the greatest men to have walked this earth died today.

Nelson Mandela, Madiba, Tata — a champion of freedom and equality and a bright shining light of virtue in a sea of distrust and greed.

I was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, almost exactly one year before Madiba was inaugurated as the first black president of the Rainbow Nation.

Though I was born in South Africa and raised in the southern half of the continent, I have spent at least half of my life in the United States, thousands of miles away from Tata Mandela. I was in South Africa last summer, but that was first time I had been there in years.

But through his teachings, through his legacy, Madiba taught me much about grace, virtue and overcoming fear even from across the planet.

He emerged from 27 years of imprisonment and a lifetime of struggle for equality and freedom in his homeland, but he was not bitter. He was gracious.

Madiba knew something that would change the trajectory of South Africa and the world. He knew that divided we are weak and that together we are strong.

His implementation of grace as a governing policy was not simply the only thing that could have saved South Africa from civil war, it was a victory over the worst part of human nature.

Had Madiba had a mind and heart for revenge, South Africa — and possibly the continent of Africa — would be decades behind where it is today. He showed how a country deeply divided by race, culture and socioeconomic status could rise above inequality and aim for greatness.

But Madiba’s cause was not limited to racial equality. He knew that people of all religions, races, creeds and backgrounds deserved an equal shot at happiness and fulfillment.

When Madiba took part in writing South Africa’s post-apartheid constitution in 1996, he set the foundation for South Africa to become the first nation in Africa to legalize same-sex marriage in 2006.

He actively supported the betterment of education for all and the rights of women.

For Madiba, the rights of one person were no less important than the rights of another, no matter who. And Madiba saw all.

His personal family life struggled because he was father to millions. He was so devoted to making the lives of others better that he neglected his own.

He truly sacrificed himself for the betterment of South Africa and the world.

And how frightening that must have been.

He must have often felt like one man against a world of injustice. But he stayed strong.

When life is difficult, when we face challenges we do not believe ourselves prepared for, we must find courage to carry on, as Madiba did. Bravery to better the world is one of the greatest gifts he left us, and that is encapsulated in this one quotation.

“What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived,” he said. “It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead.”

With his death, Madiba leaves us a charge. We must be gracious, virtuous and brave to make this world and the lives of all who live on it better.

We must see past the injustice and violence to the peace and equality that is possible.

It will be difficult for now, though, as my heart is broken for our great leader. My heart is broken for Madiba.