Editor’s Note: Graça Machel co-founded The Elders, a group of former world leaders working for peace, justice and human rights, with her husband, Nelson Mandela. She is a lifelong advocate for women’s and children’s rights and is the founder of the Graça Machel Trust and the Foundation for Community Development. She is leading the Elders Walk Together campaign’s activities on Nelson Mandela’s 100th birthday. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
On Wednesday, people from all around the world gather to honor and draw inspiration from one of the most powerful examples of courage and change: Nelson Mandela. A South African freedom fighter who was born 100 years ago in the village of Mvezo, he grew to adulthood under the shadow of apartheid.
From the beginning, Mandela was a visionary and influential political figure. For those of us who knew and loved him, Madiba will forever be the man who, together with his generation, led his people to freedom.
In these troubled and turbulent times, where faith in leaders is sorely lacking – and all too often for good reasons – what can we learn from Mandela’s legacy?
We can heed his words: “The quality of change in our society will greatly depend upon the quality of leadership that is exercised in the various sectors and activities of our communities, organizations and public life.”
This means that leaders must have a clear vision of how best to serve the needs of all people, not only those with political sway. Mandela, in particular, strove to address the needs of the most vulnerable and the least likely to be heard. In doing so, he ensured the freedom of all South Africans.
Today, millions of people who feel left behind by the forces of globalization have become easy prey to the siren songs of isolationism, xenophobia and racism.
Trust in the institutions of government, business and the multilateral system is at an all-time low, making it easy for the cynical peddlers of populism to win votes by offering false promises and seemingly simple solutions.
Many politicians and citizens either lack the courage to challenge these purveyors of prejudice, or find solace in scapegoating and join the chorus of cheap bigotry.
Yet we abdicate our own responsibilities and abandon the most vulnerable in society if we succumb to fatalism and despair. History teaches us that change is always possible, even when things appear most bleak, when courageous women and men stand together, speak out and take action to change the status quo.
Madiba fought the evils of apartheid, along with his comrades both at home and in exile. They worked across gender, color, age and philosophical lines. From the likes of Albertina Sisulu and Ruth First, to Steve Biko and Hugh Masekela, to the schoolchildren of Soweto and the martyrs of Sharpeville – in their spheres of influence, all types of change agents played a critical role in overthrowing their racist regime.
Together, they overcame oppression and contributed to building a new democracy that allowed all South Africans, irrespective of political or racial affiliation, to become a part of this hopeful ideal – a rainbow nation.
Millions of people are alive today who were not even born when Mandela walked out of prison a free man in 1990. What is remarkable, and what gives me hope for the future, is how his life and legacy continue to inspire these younger generations.
The world has changed immeasurably in the three decades since he was released. It has even changed immeasurably in the five years since his passing in 2013. Perhaps now more than ever, we need to take guidance from his moral compass and remember the importance of respecting human dignity and defending equal rights for everyone – regardless of race, creed, national origin or sexual orientation.
We cannot tolerate a world where mothers and infants are separated by armed men in uniform, where assassinations and poisonings against civilians are considered an acceptable instrument of state power, or where desperate refugees and migrants are left helpless and vulnerable.
Throughout his life, Mandela believed in the power of positive change. So it behooves us, as we celebrate his centenary, to consider what we can do – both as individuals and collectively – to keep fighting for the freedoms he held so dearly.
It scarcely needs restating how urgent it is to keep up the fight.
Fortunately, there are countless people around the world who are not prepared to meekly abandon the hard-won gains of the past century, from gender equality to the right to health, education, access to justice and peace.
For the past year, The Elders – the group of independent global leaders who Madiba and I convened in 2007 – have been working to support courageous civil society groups who uphold the values of peace, justice and equality.
These “Sparks of Hope,” as we call these civil society groups, are 100 grassroots organizations from all corners of the globe and are comprised of peacemakers, human rights defenders, justice advocates, feminist campaigners, LGBT rights fighters and community health workers. Over 67 million people around the world have joined us on social media to amplify the voices and reach of these “Sparks of Hope” and accelerate social change in their communities.
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On his 100th birthday, let us use this momentous occasion to redouble our efforts to continue his long walk to freedom. I join my fellow Elders and grassroots “Sparks of Hope” in Johannesburg, where we walk together in commemoration of Madiba’s legacy and in support of those who work for a world free from poverty, inequality and injustice.
As Madiba said himself, “Let freedom reign. The sun will never set on so glorious a human achievement.”