I knew of Nelson Mandela’s greatness, years before a rugby ball ever touched my hands. I don’t have many memories of my youth, but I remember the day Nelson Mandela got out of prison (at least I think I do). I was 3. Years later, I spoke to my dad about how someone could go from being a prisoner to a president and he told me “anything is possible if you have the right heart.” Mandela became less of a symbol or icon and more of a role model for me, in terms of the things a person could achieve once they overcame adversity. As a kid (and even into adulthood), I worshipped him. My first ever public school speech was a tribute to him. While other kids had written about Masters of the Universe and Animaniacs I was busy trying to emulate the way he spoke, carried himself and trying to understand the profound wisdom of this man who had lived so much more than I could ever hope to.
"Madiba is what they call him," my father said, a name of the tribe to which Mandela belonged, and one that was often attributed to a quick mind but a sensitive nature. Madiba, a name which struck me and stuck with me years later, to the point where it was given to me as nickname by a rugby team; for the speeches I used to make prior to the matches. I watched his interview with Ted Koppel and saw someone who was more than a man. The way he handled himself with grace, care, tact and what seemed to be a genuine concern for every living thing and human was beyond inspiring. I dreamt of being even one sixteenth of the person he was and I prayed to have half the backbone and spirit of that great man.
Later when I began to play rugby, I discovered the impact the sport had made on South Africa and the way it was able to unite people. I had never seen a more perfect game. The 1995 World Cup, to this day, is one of the single greatest events I have ever lived through, even if it took me years to appreciate the impact that it truly had. Mandela said “"Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire, it has the power to unite people in a way that little else does.” I had no idea how right he was. When he put on a Springboks jersey and entered Ellis Park he was doing more than supporting another sports team. He was making the profound statement that this was not a team to only be associated with White Afrikaans, but rather a rainbow nation. None of it was based on political gain or the strategic politics of how to increase his rating, but rather his genuine love for uniting people who had once been seen as enemies, as well as his appreciation for the sport they play in heaven.
When I woke up this morning to the news that he had died I was crushed, as I’m sure many people were. But Nelson Mandela’s legacy is not one of grief; it is one to be celebrated. I am honored to have grown up in a household of people who helped to expose me to such a righteous human being, his ideals, beliefs and passions. I realized just how lucky I was. Whether intentional or not, Mandela impacted the way I treat others and the way I treat myself. He helped shape me into someone who is forgiving, fiercely independent, unwaveringly loyal, tolerant and someone who is unwilling to stand for injustice of any kind. His speeches and quotes floated around in my subconscious and inspired me to expect more from myself in both my darkest hours and my greatest victories. We shared the same favorite poem, one which I have tattooed to my ribcage, close to my heartbeat. I promised myself I would meet him one day and when I did I would thank him for everything he ever taught me. I never got that chance. For every great teacher there is a student who may not realize just how much they have learned until that teacher is gone. He was an absolute legend of a man, but as I’ve been told….legends never die! RIP Madiba.