Yesterday, my sister asked why it bothered me so much that Nelson Mandela died. She saw it as a great man who had lived very long, who has been suffering from illness and is now free of that pain. My response: He was the only real hero in my lifetime.

When my parents were young and coming of age the world offered them many present heroes. They had Bustamante and Norman Manley as children, they marched with Michael Manley as young adults. They followed the likes of Che Guevara and Fidel Castro. They cried when John F Kennedy and Martin Luther King were assassinated. These were their “present-tense” heroes.

I had one. His name was Nelson Mandela. From a far away country that I had never visited, this man helped to shape my world view. He showed me as a child that injustice should not be tolerated, even if I had never met the victim of it. He was my real life hero, my example of fighting for freedom, my example of passionate pursuit. He embodied commitment to the cause and showed me that Justice and Vengeance are not the same thing.

Nelson Mandela

When I first understood who Mandela was, it was that he was fighting against apartheid in South Africa and had been imprisoned for it. My dad is always ready to discuss world affairs and politics with me, and what apartheid was was very much a part of it. I understood that in South Africa, black people were mistreated and abused by the government and Nelson Mandela was fighting against that. He was imprisoned for it and was going to die for it.

Nelson Mandela visits his former cell at Robben Island

As a family, we stood with Mandela and all oppressed South Africans by not buying gas from Shell stations, wrote music (click here ), and spoke out on the whole situation both privately and publicly. I knew Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika as well as I knew Jamaica Land We Love, and sang it just as often. It seemed that my whole world stood with this cause. Yes, lots of things were happening in the 80’s that warranted attention, but Apartheid was a constant, and it was the injustice of it that as a people, we could not tolerate.

Then just before my birthday in 1990, Nelson Mandela was freed. I remember being so happy that Mandela was free again, the hero of the people was now walking free. I was happy for his family that got to see him again. His wife who fought on while he was imprisoned, and must have longed for her husband. I was happy for his children who must have been missing the safety of their fathers hugs. I was happy for the non-whites of South Africa who had their champion back.

I recall there were all sorts of activities celebrating his freedom (including this song). We felt a kinship with Mandela, as though he were living right here in Jamaica. This is the world I grew up in; Mandela was our brother, our comrade, our friend and our hero. We were one and the same.

Carlene (my step-mom) & Portia with Winnie Mandela

In 1991 Mandela came to Jamaica. We welcomed him home to the island he had never been to. There was a great concert at the National Stadium held in his honor and thankfully, because of my parents, I was able to be there and see him. In real life. He was right there. The country celebrated in the presence of the Mandelas the joy we felt when we first saw those photos of them walking through the streets just a year earlier.

The Mandelas in Jamaica

A few years later, my older sister spent her 21st birthday in South Africa watching him being sworn in as the first President of the Non-Apartheid South Africa. I wished I could have been there with her, but she was a missionary and I was still in high school. *Song here * The lesson was not lost on me none the less. Because of Passion he went from Prisoner to President.

It was with this win that Mandela’s actions taught me that Vengeance is not Justice. With the establishing of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the Mandela led government showed the world that there was a way to have justice served without a terrorist state of mind. It was the leader in him that cemented the revolutionary purpose fulfilled.

Mandela is one influence in my life that has helped to shape my world view, my sense of justice, my hope for humanity, and my passion for people. I am blessed to have lived in a time to have witnessed a man like Mandela.