Nelson Mandela’s recent hospitalization, and the worried rumors of his imminent demise that swirled throughout the media, remind me of an encounter I had several years ago with some teenagers from South Africa.
I was teaching entrepreneurship at an international youth conference in Dornach, Switzerland. Seven hundred Waldorf 12th-graders from more than 20 countries converged for a weeklong conference called Connect. The first plenary session featured a professor who taught city planning at an English university. The professor talked about the environmental crisis and made a point of urging the students to use the greenest forms of transportation available. “It is unconscionable,” he declaimed, “to drive an automobile when you can take a bus or ride a bicycle.”
After the professor’s speech, the conference divided into various working groups that would meet each day throughout the week. My group of 40 aspiring entrepreneurs and cultural change agents included two dozen Europeans, two Russians, a handful of Americans, a few Israelis, and half a dozen South Africans, some of whom were white and some of whom were black. After brief introductions, it was clear that one of the Israelis was bursting to speak, so I asked him what was on his mind.
“That English professor is full of shit,” he growled. “He doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Israel is a war zone. If we take a city bus instead of a car, we put our lives in great danger. Buses are targets of the terrorists. That professor has his head in the clouds.”
On an intuition, I found myself turning to the South Africans and asking, “What’s it like for you?” One of the white students spoke first. “South Africa could be a war zone. We feel the tension in the air every day. It’s so thick you could cut it with a knife.” His classmates nodded in agreement. One of the black students spoke next. “It could be a bloodbath,” he said. “Ninety percent of South Africans are black, and there’s a great deal of anger because we were held down by the whites for so many years.” A third South African student, a black girl, added, “But we have something that keeps us from turning into a war zone. We have Nelson Mandela. All of us have visited his jail cell at Robben Island [where he was imprisoned for 27 years for his antiapartheid political activities]. His example of forgiving his oppressors, and his creation of the Truth & Reconciliation Commission, are what keep South Africa from becoming a bloodbath,” she said.
A hush descended over the group. I felt tears well up and found myself filled with gratitude for Nelson Mandela’s courage and wisdom. How amazing it is to see the difference one person can make. And of course, it’s not just him—it’s the whole nation. Mandela set the example, and 50 million people, black and white, followed. Like Mahatma Gandhi and Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr., Mandela didn’t act alone. He galvanized a movement by following his conscience, speaking his mind, and making his life an example.
There are others. Nobel Peace Prize winners like Guatemala’s Rigoberta Menchú Tum, Kenya’s Wangari Maathai, Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi, and China’s Liu Xiaobo. All the social entrepreneurs who’ve become Ashoka Fellows and Skoll Foundation award winners. And the millions of other, often unheralded heroes, like the young Egyptians who so fearlessly filled Tahrir Square and brought down Hosni Mubarak’s regime. Every day, all over the world, there are brave souls who put their life on the line for their beliefs and the betterment of their fellows.
What about you? What are the needs of the world that touch you most deeply? Is it the bees? GMOs? Global warming and climate change? Species extinction, the depletion of groundwater and fossil fuel, the pandemic spread of HIV/AIDS, the proliferation of nuclear weapons and small arms, the expanding gulf between the rich and the poor, teenage pregnancy, homelessness, racism, drug and alcohol addiction, the conflict between secularism and fundamentalism? The list goes on and on. Many of these crises are coming to a head in the next 10 to 20 years, and something must be done about each and every one of them.
Have you spoken out to friends and family about the things you care most about? To your neighbors? To people you don’t know, perhaps in a public forum? Have you changed the way you live because of the dictates of your conscience? Are you a living example to others?
Who, what, and where is your inner Nelson Mandela? God knows, we all need to find him now.
Eric Utne is a member of the Nobel Peace Prize Forum Executive Committee.
This article first appeared in the May-June 2011 issue of Utne Reader.