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Students linked to South Africa reflect on leader

Haleigh Ehmsen | Monday, December 9, 2013

News of Nelson Mandela’s death spread worldwide last Thursday night, and senior South African native Bertie Nel said the loss of the nation’s former leader was an event “we were never really prepared for.”

Nel said South Africans anticipated Mandela’s death, but it didn’t take away the pain of the loss. After speaking with his family back home, they told him the country was mourning collectively.

While Mandela’s presidency ended in 1999, his impact on South Africa is lasting, Nel said.

“If it weren’t for him, a lot of what’s going on in South Africa wouldn’t be possible. He was the big instigator of [ending apartheid] and making sure that everyone had equal opportunity,” Nel said. “Regardless of who you are, regardless of white or black, it’s very important that everyone have the same opportunity and [Mandela] brought that to South Africa.

“Back home they call him ‘tata’ and that’s the word for father. I think that’s very fitting. Everyone saw him as the father, ‘tata.'”

 Saint Mary’s sophomore Emily Rojas studied in South Africa this semester but had returned to the United States when she learned of Mandela’s death. She said a friend still in the country called her and asked her if she had heard the news.

“I said ‘no,’ and she said ‘Well, Nelson Mandela passed,'” Rojas said. “There was a pause from both ends, and she said the country is in a standstill and from TV to people in the streets, you can feel the sadness, the mourning.

“It was something that really hit home. It hurt because he was like a father, a figure you could look up to, because he spoke so much about having people of different races, different nations come together and be unified.”

Nel said while it would be amazing to be back home for the ceremony commemorating Mandela’s life at FNB Stadium near Soweto on Tuesday, he still feels he is able to pay his respects from afar.

“Everyone knows who Mandela is and I think tomorrow’s ceremony is going to attract so many viewers from across the world,” Nel said. “Everyone around the world revered him and knew that what he did was good for South Africa.”

Nel said he thinks Mandela’s actions inspired people around the world to stand up for their beliefs and accomplish good work.
“He was a great man. He did a lot for South Africa,” Nel said. “I don’t think we would be where we are without him and we are very lucky to have a man of that caliber in South Africa.”

Rojas said she believes Mandela’s legacy will continue to motivate the whole world to take action.

“Beyond the country, I think he impacted the world,” she said. “[Everyone] should become educated on what he did because [he taught] that we dignify every individual despite the fact they are Afrikaan or Zulu, from whatever part of the world, and I think that is something the country itself embraces. The people who really took what he said, it helped themselves shape into who they are.”

Rojas said being in South Africa taught her more about Mandela’s legacy than anything she read before the trip.

“[I realized] how much he shaped and molded the country, and I don’t think that his legacy is going to end,” Rojas said. “This is just the beginning toward a more unified nation, and that was his vision.”

Nel said there are many positives things that can come from Mandela’s life, but he believes is forgiveness is the most important.
“The biggest positive that I think anyone can take of [his life] is his ability to forgive people,” Nel said. “Yeah they put him in prison for 27 years, but as soon as he got out of it he forgave. He never held a grudge, and that’s just amazing that he was able to turn around like that.”

Nel said that remembering Mandela’s life is important and while many are saddened by his death, it should move people to take action.

“It’s now time for the rest of the world to step up and follow his example and do good in the world,” he said.

Contact Haleigh Ehmsen at hehmse01@saintmarys.edu