Roli grew up in a small village where a typical day included tending cattle, playing games with other boys, and listening to tribe elders tell stories of inspiration. Roli was also a grandson of the tribal king, but tradition determined that his family branch was ineligible to inherit the throne. Nevertheless, Roli was well-cared for, and he enjoyed many of the benefits of being tribal royalty. He began attending school at the age of 7 and would be the first member of his family to learn to read.
Roli’s plan was to gain the necessary skills to become an advisor for the royal house. He attended a prestigious college that was the only institution of its kind to accept black students. A year after enrolling, he became involved in a leadership role in the student government. Dissatisfied with the school’s meal quality, he helped organize a protest boycott. Unfortunately, the school had little tolerance for such demonstrations, and suspended the boycotters, including Roli. It was his first taste of activism, as well as its potentially serious consequences.
Leaving college without a degree, Roli first secured a job as a night watchman, then as a clerk at a law firm. There, he made friends with colleagues dedicated to battling racism and advocating for equality. Roli became increasingly political, marching in a successful protest against an increase in bus fares. When he saw how fares were lowered in response to the protestors’ efforts, it was moment of true inspiration.
Within a few years, Roli had completed his bachelor’s degree through correspondence courses and had begun studying law. He also knew his life plans had changed, realizing that he was more interested in a political path fighting for equality than in the privileged life of a royal advisor. Roli married, had children, and fully immersed himself in a life of fighting for the rights of others.
Roli is a nickname for Rolihlahla, which means “tree shaker” or “troublemaker.” He never really cared for the name, and enthusiastically accepted the English name given to him in his first year of school. His schoolmates called him Nelson. The world knew him as Mandela.
Rolihlahla Nelson Mandela was a talented young man with bright prospects who risked everything to stand up for human rights in the face of oppression. His efforts and passion for change would see him imprisoned by a tyrannical government for more than 27 years, before world pressures would force a change. Upon his release, Mandela became South Africa's first democratically elected President, serving from 1994 to 1999, and receiving more than 250 honors, including the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize.
As the world continues to mourn the loss of Mandela, I thought it would be appropriate to start the New Year celebrating and embracing one of his greatest attributes… his sense of connectedness. In Africa there is a concept known as Ubuntu, an idea that we accomplish nothing entirely on our own. Mandela believed that we are human only through the humanity of others. Our greatest dreams are only achieved through equal measures of our own work and the support of others.
There is no doubt that Mandela was a rare leader who, in a single lifetime, liberated millions of people, thereby empowering them to pursue their own passions and dreams. But Mandela was the first to admit that, in order for him to achieve even the smallest degree of success, he needed to stand on the shoulders of many great leaders that came before him.
I was in South Africa in the summer of 2013 when Mandela was hospitalized with the illness that would ultimately claim his life. During that time, I read this simple but eloquent quote from the great leader: “Men come and men go. I have come and I will go when my time comes. What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we led.”
As we start 2014, I hope you will embrace the We Are Connected mindset, and realize how each of us is a thread in the tapestry of Mandela’s greatness. His inspiration paves the way for us all to dream big and make a meaningful impact on the lives of others. It’s time to shake some trees!
Until next week...