The Real Mandela This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine.

February 19, 2014
I remember when I was young sitting in my father’s car while it rained outside. I put up my feet against the back windshield, and we sat in the parked car outside the apartment while we waited for the tempest to subside. The heat was on, and the windows fogged up, insulating us from the outside world. Darkness began creeping through the mantle of cloud, and night began to roll over the whirling earth. At times like this, I remember asking him questions about history, about people, about the world. We sat together and talked about the world outside the warm car.

One time, I asked him who Nelson Mandela was. It was an evening in June. One of those storms that swipes at the air with its long arms, clearing away the heat and humidity with its torrents, was coming over lower Manhattan. I had heard Mandela’s name only once, when a teacher was saying how much a country called South Africa had been changed by him.

Before he explained anything, my father smiled and surfed through his iPod. He selected a song, and played it over the speakers of the 1997 Toyota Corolla. “Free … free-ee, Nelson Mandela!” went the lyrics. We listened to the whole song, and I thought it was kind of boring. I asked him who this Mandela Man was, with youthful innocence. He explained how Apartheid had split South Africa into a land of black people ruled by a tiny white minority.

Nelson Mandela, he had said, was a man who wanted to change that. He was arrested and thrown into jail. People around the world supported his cause and wanted him freed, and this song was written as part of that effort. After 27 long years in captivity, he was finally freed. South Africa, though it still has its problems, became a land ruled by all its people. Mandela was like the Martin Luther King Jr. of the South Africans, and a hero to the rest of the world.

It was only recently, seeing the film “Mandela,” that I realized that for a portion of his life, he had been a terrorist. I recalled the saying that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter, but I still couldn’t come to terms with the reality of the hero I had been taught to admire, after seeing him in his desanitized state. That’s when I realized my mistake.

Heroes are not perfect. They are as human as you and me. They are exceptional but ultimately, inevitably human and thus flawed. This is true for Nelson Mandela, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Martin Luther King Jr., and any other hero in the consciousness of our society. Their imperfections show us what it means to be human, and give us an attainable model to strive toward. These faults transform them into people we can aspire to be.

Recently Mandela’s story ended. Yet ours continues. It reminds me of the end of the poem “Invictus” by William Ernest, which I saw on the cover of The Economist shortly after Mandela’s death. It concludes like this:

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.

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