When we booked our first trip to Africa, we never thought about Nelson Mandela’s potential passing or President Obama’s potential farewell visit. However, as the trip became very close, we realized tensions would be high because both events were possible during the same trip.
From the minute we landed in Johannesburg, everywhere you turn you feel or see the impact of Mandela has on the entire country, and it should remind us that one person really can still impact the world. Hopefully that will never change. Everywhere, we see signs, bumper stickers, dinner prayers with other South Africans, casual talk among locals, the pride you see in the eyes of workers everywhere or the prideful white leaders who have passionately embraced the new day.
For me, I remember when an old friend was doing a “political sit-in” with other student activists as the student body president of University of Louisville to start an on-campus “stop apartheid” campaign, which my father thought was cool because he had educated on “buy U.S.” or “stop apartheid” movements. This was the first memory of Nelson Mandela I remembering having. My father believed, as a cabinet labor director for the state, that fair and adequate pay, labor with representation, minimal wage standards, safe working conditions and even in affirmative action because he believed it helped heal an injured society who experienced social injustice spread by whites.
Being here this month is a gift and a true blessing. Even two days ago as we sat stuck in traffic on our bus as President Obama’s motorcade raced past, our fellow South African passengers talked with price that both amazing countries had a leader with roots in the African culture, and how people in the U.S., like Martin Luther, Malcolm X and others before Mandela, paved a way for a better world. South Africans are proud Obama was given the opportunity and said it shoes how progressive the U.S. is when it comes to race, labor, and freedom.
But this month, it is all about sitting around tables full of people from 21 countries who are safari-ing across the Kruger bush, having reflection dinners on Mandela’s teachings and talking about his best traits – forgiveness, vision, tenacity, inspiration, etc. We’re also hearing firsthand from our new South African friends who met him and shook his hand, or our host family who met and moved here to build a new life and family because of one man: Nelson Mandela.
The whole place, in less than 30 years, is really healing; affirmative action is in full force, big developments are going on everywhere, and the old guard is only 9% of the total population. Meanwhile, tourism is booming in Cape Town, the world watched as South Africa hosted the World Cup just three years ago through a world wide lens and – this might be the best story in the end – democracy is thriving, with one of the richest cultures iand most diverse economic bases in the world.
All of this is working in harmony because of one man’s vision; it is a blessing to feel his impact while he is still here among us.