Literally millions of people on each continent throughout the world paused on July 18, 2011 to recognize and to celebrate the birthday of the living legend, Nelson Mandela. As an African American, I personally joined the ranks of the African National Congress more than 40 years ago while I was a younger Black community activist and organizer for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice. Today, at the wise age of 93, Nelson Mandela still stands tall as a living symbol of the triumph of the long protracted struggle of humanity for freedom, justice and equality.
We celebrate the birth and continuing leadership of one of the world's greatest freedom fighters. Nelson Mandela is a father, grandfather and a serious family man. Even during his long unjust imprisonment for over 27 years, he never lost his sense of perspective about the importance of his family and the leadership of the ANC investing the spirit and ideology of the freedom struggle in the youth of South Africa. The youth of the ANC, who later would rise up in such an irrepressible unity and focus that caused even the rigid foundations of apartheid to collapse and fall. Mandela embodies what it means to be an African transformation visionary who not only fought hard and long to free South Africa from the ruthless apartheid regime, but also who became the first Black President of South Africa with a universal sense of global dignity, integrity and respect.
I believe today that the first Black President of the United States of America, President Barack Obama can also learn from the legacy of Nelson Mandela. When Mandela became President of South Africa, it was not an easy task. It was difficult and trying on every issue because of the history of racial oppression and economic exploitation. But, Mandela rose to the occasion with a masterful astuteness that even brought his political opponents to see and value his inclusive vision for a "new" South Africa. Yes, there are vast differences between the United States and South Africa. My point, however, is that President Obama has a similar trial and tribulation that Mandela had: how to unite a divided nation in order to summon a common, inclusive, transformative and participatory agenda that takes the nation forward in the face of fierce "reactionary" head winds that are determined to take the nation backwards.
The current divisive debate in the United States on increasing the national debt limit to avoid economic default and catastrophe is yet another classic example of politicians putting their narrow political and economic views over the common good for the nation. But, some would join me in saying that this was exactly why the majority of people who voted in the United States elected President Barack Obama to rise to every occasion to help the nation move forward and not backward. President Obama, like President Mandela in the past, will have to transcend the retrenchment boundaries of partisan politics toward a "new" America that cares more about all its people without the stagnate lethargy of the status quo elite who have little or no concern for the downtrodden and marginalized masses of people who are crying out for a better way of life in America. Neither South Africa or the United States is perfect, but both nations are still evolving and it will take strong leadership to lead both nations in the broader context of the global community to achieve greater progress for all of humanity. The global economy needs global leadership that views and values diversity, but bonds and binds the global community together with the best of governmental, as well as grass roots, leadership and empowerment for all.
In my last face to face private visit with Nelson Mandela and Russell Simmons in southern Africa, we discussed how important it was for the diamond industry and other extractive industries to invest in the empowerment of Africa. Shortly thereafter and taking the wisdom of Mandela seriously, Russell, I and others from the industry established the Diamond Empowerment Fund (DEF) to provide financial support for the higher education of young African leaders from diamond producing nations in Africa. Business leaders and government leaders can and should do so much more. Africans can learn from us, but equally important, there is so much we can learn from Africans. We are working now in South Africa and Botswana. Soon we will be in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). We are advocating concern about all the minerals and other extractive industries. But, like in every neighborhood in America and in Africa, the greatest resource is not the oil, diamonds, copper, gold, silver, platinum, uranium or other precious metals and minerals. The greatest resource is the human resource: that is the youth, families, communities, villages and neighborhoods where people want and deserve the best of life.
The elders in every society should always be consulted by the youth leaders in every community. God has blessed us with Nelson Mandela. Let's learn from our elder statesman. We should learn from history, not repeat history. President Barack Obama can and should gain an invaluable insight from Nelson Mandela. The world is still changing and we should all desire to be change agents rather than change spectators. Lastly, in 1993, I was honored to present Nelson Mandela to the National Convention of the NAACP in Indianapolis, Indiana. He spoke about the historic bond between the ANC and the NAACP as two "freedom fighting" organizations. We have to overcome our "weary years and our silent tears." Nelson Mandela continues to show us the way.
Dr. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr. is Senior Advisor to the Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO) and President of Education Online Services Corporation.