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An Open Letter to That College Girl Who Doesn’t Know Anything About Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela. Debris2008 / Flickr

To the anonymous college girl whose conversation I overheard yesterday:

I have a message for you.

As you have clearly learned by now - from television, social media, or an online news site - global figure Nelson Mandela sadly has passed away at age 95. What you unfortunately have not learned is who he was or what his life meant to millions of people, because you asked if he was the guy from Fast and Furious who died. (Just so you know, that was Paul Walker. You were one million miles off from the correct answer.)

Even more unfortunately, you're not alone.

Now that my palm has become unglued from my face, I'd really like to talk to you - one young person to another - about why your question is so troubling.

Thanks, David Tennant. Image via Giphy

Even though we weren't alive for his years in prison, and though we were too young to understand the significance when he was elected president in 1994, that's not an excuse to be ignorant of who he was.

First of all, he wasn't an actor, though he has been portrayed by multiple actors in both television and film. (Did you see the 2009 movie Invictus? That's about him.) Mandela was an anti-apartheid activist who worked tirelessly to end white minority rule in South Africa and create a country in which all races cooperated.

In the sixties, he worked with the African National Congress, a liberation movement, to try to bring about the end of apartheid. (Even though black Africans were the majority of the South African population, none of them were allowed to hold positions of power or enjoy equal rights due to racial segregation. That's what apartheid was - a system built to hold black South Africans down.)

Here's his first-ever television interview in 1961:

In 1964, he was sentenced to life imprisonment after being charged with sabotage and plotting to overthrow the government. He served the first 18 years of his sentence on Robben Island in a tiny, solitary cell. He was eventually moved to a mainland prison.

Robben Island

The jail cell where Nelson Mandela spent nearly 20 years of his life before being moved to a different prison. Image via Wikimedia Commons.


Something I'm sure you learned about (or at least I would hope so) is the struggle that black people faced here in the United States. The U.S. Civil Rights Movement was also at a peak in 1964 when Mandela was sentenced, so you can imagine how quickly he became a symbol of the fight for equality for people in the States.

His story didn't just resonate with us. People in countries all over the world eventually learned his name and of the struggles in South Africa, staging boycotts and protests and calling for their governments to impose sanctions on South Africa until apartheid was abolished.

He was finally released after 27 years on February 11, 1990. To say it was a big deal would be a humongous understatement.

He was 72 when he was able to walk free. Most people can retire at that age. Mandela, however, helped to finally end apartheid in South Africa, became its first-ever black president, and passionately promoted reconciliation between races. Even after he stepped down from his one term as president, he donated time and money to the South African AIDS crisis, and won the Nobel Peace Prize. He was someone who never admitted defeat and whose humility and graciousness have inspired millions of people the world over.

I'm serious when I talk about how gracious he was. This is a man who took tea with the same people who had imprisoned him.

That's why even today he still means so much to so many. Legal segregation may have ended both here and in South Africa, but racism has not. Here at home, people still get upset over interracial marriage, Hispanics born in the United States are unfairly and incorrectly labeled as foreigners, society gets ugly when a brown woman is crowned Miss America - the list could go on.

If I were to sit here and list all of the racial problems that still persist here, or in South Africa, or in so many other countries around the world, my letter to you would never end. We're getting there...

...but ending these problems completely is going to take a lot of time and even more hard work and cooperation.

That's why Mandela is so important to me and to millions of others. We can apply his example to so many aspects of life. He taught us not to give up, even when things seem bleak.  He taught us not to continue to separate ourselves from those who are different, but to meet on common ground. And he taught us to be humble and forgiving in all that we do.

So taking that example into consideration, even though I was appalled by your question, I won't be angry. I only hope you read this and understand the mark that Nelson Mandela has left on the world.




Watch live coverage of events following Mandela's passing >>

Send a message of condolence >>

Donate to the Nelson Mandela Foundation >>

Donate to AIDS research >>

Images used under Creative Commons licensing.

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An Open Letter to That College Girl Who Doesn’t Know Anything About Nelson Mandela

Lauren Wethers

Lauren is originally from outside Saint Louis, but traveled down the Mississippi River to be a student at Tulane University, where she is the editor-in-chief of The Tulane Review and director of the New Orleans Universities Relay for Life. She has also written for NOLAWoman.com and Winnovating. One day she’ll figure out how to make the Time Turner real, but until then, she’d like to thank coffee for her success. Follow: @laurenwethers.

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