When President Obama, speaking at the memorial of Nelson Mandela after his death earlier this month, described the former South African President as a “giant of history” he alluded to something a little uncomfortable. While the world mourns a great leader, some our questioning whether Mandela’s long road to freedom has any relevance to those of my generation; used as we are to instant gratification and the ability to do anything with minimal effort. I have even heard my fellow students ask: for people who only knew Mandela as a mild, smiling old man, does his story of resistance really mean anything?
Yes, because we need his example. South Africa’s black population is nominally free from the scourge of legal apartheid, but they do not enjoy the equality Mandela dreamed of. The same is true for many minorities all over the world – discrimination, whether on the grounds of race, ethnicity, sexuality, disability or religion, is not a thing of the past. Half of the world’s population – its women – is subject to systemic subjugation. The injustices Mandela fought are hardly a thing of the past. We need do as he did and challenge these seemingly insurmountable problems. As Mandela showed, radical progress is indeed possible if we truly dedicate our lives to achieving it.
Yet the progress we saw in the 20th century seems to have slowed as we entered the 21st. Women’s rights and racial justice dominated the political scene for much of the past hundred years; from the Suffragettes to the civil rights movement onto women’s liberation in the 1960s and 70s and Mandela in the 90s. Now, politics is devoid of such passion. By com/arison the struggles of this century, such as those of the LGBTQA+ community, barely receive any airtime. Witness how Western governments have not taken a stand on Russia’s new anti-gay laws or how politicians, including David Cameron, fall over themselves to win favours from China, despite the regime’s dismal human rights record. Economic growth and international security have become the be all and end all of politics; humanitarian issues are a distant second.
Nothing exemplifies this so well as the current lack of widespread social movements. There isn’t a modern equivalent of the Suffragettes and the NAACP has become removed from the people it supposedly represents. Such passivity is depressing, especially from a generation which is by and large much more tolerant than its predecessors. Do today’s young people really lack the bravery and belief to stand up and shout back? Perhaps it is too easy to share a feel-good video about some issue we vaguely care about or tweet the link to a petition – all without moving from the comfort of an armchair. Such click-and-move-on attitudes have a place in spreading the word, but do not send a strong message in the same way that the thronging of hundreds of thousands of people did in Washington in 1963. There is no imperative for politicians to act when people are unwilling to do so themselves.
We need a culture in which people mobilise to achieve what they believe is right. I do not think my generation cares less than those who came before; but I do think that the selfish nature of consumerism has made them more risk averse, less willing to endanger their quality of life in order to achieve change. This is where we must learn from Mandela, a man who spent twenty-seven years on a prison island and came out just as resilient as before. We, too, must be willing to endure personal suffering in order to better the lives of others. Perhaps the reason we no longer see the protests of yesteryear is because no one is daring enough to lead them; where are this decades Pankhursts and Kings?
In mourning Mandela, the world should not look back. Instead, people everywhere should rally together and strive for the future he lit a path towards. By all means sign that petition on your way to work, but be ready to sacrifice a lot more than five minutes. That is the real lesson of Mandela’s struggle, and what makes him just as important in death as he was in life.