By Michelle Ackermann – As the world mourns the loss of, arguably, one of the greatest political activists and leaders of our time, the soccer community grieves alongside it. The lauded political prisoner passed away on Thursday night in his home in the wealthy Johannesburg suburb of Houghton, after his body succumbed to a reoccurring lung infection. Since the news spread, politicians, dignitaries and players have all taken to social media outlets to pay tribute to ‘Madiba’.
As a South African, I consider myself utterly blessed to have grown up during this “era of change” in the Rainbow Nation, and I myself took great inspiration from this respectable, noble and wise man. So much so, that I once referred to him in my application essay to university:
“A man admired by the masses, has influenced millions, and made me want to be a better person is Nelson Mandela. In 1994, while the nation of South Africa was torn apart by the remaining shackles of the apartheid regime, my family was also split by their opinions on the much anticipated first democratic election that would grant the black population their first taste of freedom: the freedom to vote…I was completely outnumbered in my argument, but continued defending the rights of the individuals who had been suppressed for years. I firmly believed and argued that they, as our equals, should be granted the same rights that we were and skin tone should not be a deciding factor for human rights…After the announcement of Nelson Mandela’s victory, I was glued to the television set for hours. It was a monumental experience to watch the celebration that day. I saw the nation united in celebration, people with white and black skin side by side, and I do not ever recall feeling more proud to be a South African than at that time”.
Not only was Mandela influential in South African politics, but also in the sports world. He may be best remembered for his ability to unite a nation, free of racial lines during the Rugby World Cup 1995, but he was equally instrumental in bringing this football showcase to African soil, and following praises of a successful event from FIFA, fans and players, the former president felt absolute pride, along with all South Africans.
The most notable of these was his leadership and the fall of apartheid, which opened the door for sanctions against the country to be dropped. This gave way to the Rugby World Cup in ’95 and the Africa Cup of Nations in ’96, which only aided in building a positive image of South Africa.
FIFA President Sepp Blatter once described Madiba as the “architect of the 2010 World Cup” –his efforts inspired the idea and his relentless hard work made the reality of the bid one that was well received by the international community.
We should all cherish the unforgettable moment when Mandela was driven onto the pitch on a golf cart, moments prior to the World Cup final 2010, to wave to a global audience and grace us all with that charming and remarkable smile.
Madiba may have never played the beautiful game, but he was a sports fanatic through and through, and also mastered using sports to aid in his political struggles. He once joked that the only dream he has yet to fulfill was his desire to become a lightweight boxing champion. Muhammad Ali, who had the pleasure of meeting Mandela, was deeply saddened and had the following to say: “He taught us forgiveness on a grand scale. His was a life filled with purpose and hope; hope for himself, his country and the world. He inspired others to reach for what appeared to be impossible and moved them to break through the barriers that held them hostage mentally, physically, socially and economically. He made us realize, we are our brother’s keeper and that our brothers come in all colors.”"
May these words forever resonate with all of us – “Death is something inevitable. When a man has done what he considers to be his duty to his people and his country, he can rest in peace. I believe I have made that effort and that is, therefore, why I will sleep for the eternity.”
Your long walk to freedom has now ended. It is time for your well-deserved rest.
The world thanks you, ‘Tata’ Madiba.