With International Nelson Mandela Day upon us, it seems an appropriate moment to consider this iconic figure’s legacy in South Africa and around the world. Typically, International Nelson Mandela Day is celebrated by people committing to perform 67 minutes of service to others on July 18, which also turns out to be his birthday. This number commemorates the years that Madiba spent in public service during his anti-apartheid struggle activities and as a statesman in the free and democratic South Africa.
Activities to commemorate Mandela Day can be almost anything that focuses on service to others such as, community clean-ups, running errands for those with mobility challenges, assisting at a local food bank or shelter or volunteering one’s time at a local school. The aim, as Madiba wished, was to get people focused on making a difference in one’s community as he believed service and encouraging service for others is the best way to overcome divisions and create strong bonds between people regardless of background or economic means.
Whilst the day is an international day recognized by the United Nations, it holds particular importance and significance in South Africa where years of division between racial groups led to the highest level of inequality between rich and poor in the world. The divisions created by apartheid are no longer official policy, but the legacy of them still pervades much of South African society. The stark contrast between rich and poor is evident throughout the country and still largely demarcated along racial lines.
Don’t get me wrong, progress has been made in attempts to resolve this problem but South Africa is a still a long way off from achieving the type of societal and economic transformation required to fix the imbalances. For example, even after 20 years of democracy and economic growth, South Africa has yet to establish a national minimum wage, let alone determine what constitutes a livable wage. Despite evidence of the importance of primary and secondary education to giving individuals the skills to participate in an economy, many schools in rural or traditionally black urban areas continue to be under resourced in every aspect.
It is in this light that Mandela Day and its message of service to others are important and should be considered an important legacy of Nelson Mandela. Of course, there are other aspects of Mandela’s activities that might seem more apparent as a legacy—including his role in opposing the apartheid regime. But let us not forget that Mandela did not single handedly bring about the democratic transition in South Africa. He was in prison for much of the struggle and thus one part of larger effort undertaken by many individuals to overthrow this racist and evil system. Further, whilst he is affectionately referred to as the “Father of the Nation,” Mandela was president for only five years from 1994 to 1999. It could be argued that he set the tone for democracy in the country, but again, he was but one part of a larger effort in that respect.
It is with this in mind that when thinking through his legacy mere months after his passing, focusing on his interest and commitment to public service and community-building becomes relevant. For Nelson Mandela, the notion of service was at once a value and a principle. As a value, it was apart of his being, his calling and came to define his purpose in life. As a principle, it defined how he wished the South African government and citizenry to conduct itself.
Mandela lived and breathed service despite immense personal and political costs. We all know that he dedicated most of his life to the struggle against apartheid of which he was jailed for 27 years and which caused estrangement from his family. Upon his release, he continued his service by becoming the President of the African National Congress (ANC), leading negotiations for the peaceful transition into democracy and then served as South Africa’s first democratic President.
But what is most remarkable about his leadership is how he viewed service as integral to reconciliation in South Africa. He believed, and rightly so, that if the population of the country focused upon serving each other, as opposed to themselves or their particular ethnic or racial group, that the divisions within South Africa could be overcome, mutual understanding imparted and sustainable peace and prosperity achieved.
These are lofty goals and his vision for reconciliation through service still has a way to go in South Africa. A report released in 2013 by the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation notes that while all South Africans agree about forgiving past injustices, there is still a significant disconnect between white and black South Africans regarding how reconciliation should take place. The report also finds the 20 to 30 percent of white South African’s surveyed are less likely to believe that victims of apartheid should be supported through affirmative action or economic redress policies. Given that the divide between rich and poor is heavily demarcated along racial lines in South Africa, the project of reconciliation through mutual understanding is still very much a work in progress.
Mandela’s legacy and commitment to service continues to push people to live for a higher purpose than individual gain or prosperity. In both South Africa and around the world, we would do well to ponder his example on this day.