I first visited Africa in 2004, 14 years after Nelson Mandela was released from the prison on Robben Island and a decade after he became South Africa’s first black president.
I was in Ghana at the time, thousands of miles from South Africa. Despite the distance, Mandela’s influence was evident as I got to know a developing country making great strides in overthrowing its historical burden and learning to stand on its own.
Optimism abounds throughout Africa, despite countless reasons for it to be crushed. I’ve seen it firsthand in places like Ghana, Mozambique, Botswana and of course South Africa.
That relentless optimism and hope is what continues to draw me back to the continent (I’m about to embark on my fourth trip – this one back to South Africa).
Mandela, more than any other person, embodied that optimism. And not just in South Africa, but across the entire continent.
As a person fortunate enough to have grown up in a position of privilege, it’s easy to wonder how Mandela kept up his optimistic demeanor in spite of the hardships he faced.
We may never in our lifetimes again see a man with his grace and compassion, but don’t think his ability to remain strong in the face of incredible adversity is singularly a trait of Madiba. It’s a trait I’ve seen throughout the continent that was beautifully reinforced by Mandela.
Since my first trip to Ghana nine years ago I’ve seen that country grow by leaps and bounds. Ghana is held up as a model of African democracy, has managed new oil wealth in a responsible manner and has seen a major improvement in infrastructure.
In Botswana, I’ve seen an Africa that doesn’t look like the stereotypical images of poor Africans living hand to mouth. It’s a proud country with a strong economy, a vibrant middle class and a love of Western-style shopping malls (not that the presence of malls is the best thing you can hope for, but hey, it could be worse).
In Mozambique, I’ve seen a government that for all its shortcomings is taking concrete steps to reduce rampant corruption and encourage tourism development along its stunning coastline.
All of this progress might not have happened if Madiba wasn’t able to unify and grow South Africa, which is Africa’s most prosperous country and the continent’s economic anchor.
John Dramani Mahama, the president of Ghana, artfully summed up Madiba’s influence in an op-ed published in the New York Times just after Mandela’s death.
It is no coincidence that in the years since Mandela’s release so much of Africa has turned toward democracy and the rule of law. His utilization of peace as a vehicle of liberation showed Africa that if we were to move beyond the divisiveness caused by colonization, and the pain of our self-inflicted wounds, compassion and forgiveness must play a role in governance. Countries, like people, must acknowledge the trauma they have experienced, and they must find a way to reconcile, to make what was broken whole again.
I hope that in death Mandela’s spirit will resonate across South Africa and the entire continent as strongly as it did during his amazing life. Based on my experience across the beautiful continent, I have no doubt that will be the case.