When I heard about Nelson Mandela's passing Thursday night, it brought a flood of thoughts about him and how his shadow had loomed and shaped so many of our lives in Africa in the 1970s and 1980s.
Growing up in Rhodesia, South Africa's northern neighbor, Nelson Mandela's name was always a catalyst to an argument. He was feared and demonized by the all-white ruling parties in South Africa and Rhodesia. He was labeled a terrorist and the open discussion at dinner tables was that he could not be freed because if he were, he would encourage the native Africans to take arms and chase all of the Caucasians out of Africa.
When I was a teenager, his imprisonment was an endless source of debate about fairness and race. While he lay holed up quietly in a desolate cell on Robben Island, in the frigid, shark-filled waters off the coast of Cape Town, the rest of the world clamored for his freedom. But safety and security was the overwhelming concern for the white Africans who had been there for generations.
As Rhodesia became Zimbabwe in 1980 and we learned to work together as a shared society, we watched what was happening in neighboring South Africa. Mandela sat in his cell. For that entire decade he sat and waited and thought. The sanctions against South Africa had an impact, but no impact was more important than that beacon out in the ocean — Mandela was imprisoned for wanting fairness for all Africans. He was the focus, the mission; he humanized the injustice of what was happening in Africa.
And then came his freedom — the day every white South African secretly feared. How could he not want retribution? How could he not want to return the hostility to those who locked his life away for simply asking for justice and respect for all men? But it never came. Clearly for him, there was never really any doubt, it was on his face and in his manner, it was in every word he said and in every action he took as the president of the country that had locked him up for decades. He loved all and respected all, regardless of their opinions, their color and their past. He felt people were good and would do the right thing, even if he needed to prod them to get them there. He saw past people's biases and their prejudices and tapped into the core of their humanness.
In the sordid mess that is Africa, finally a leader had arrived who could unite every person. A man with the most unlikely background became the embodiment of what a man can be if he is strong, just and humble. You cannot say a bad word about this man in Africa now. Regardless of color, every person knows that he was a leader who we could all look up to and one we can only hope to emulate in our regular lives. How many of us let things go when we are mistreated? How often do we really look at the people who surround us and see their humanness and beyond the labels we unconsciously assign to them? How many of us live our lives for a cause we can be proud of?
Real power does not require screaming, force or guns. Mandela toppled a country with none of it. His power came from having a mission that was true and inspired people to see beyond themselves and want to give more of themselves. But it stuck and resonated because he believed it and lived it and had sacrificed his life to it. Mandela was a man that carried none of the pain of his history, only the potential of a just future. And, most importantly, he was a man whose actions were consistent with the values he cherished. Rest in Peace Nelson Mandela, no man deserves it more.
Joe Duran is chief executive of United Capital Financial Advisers. Follow him @DuranMoney