On 18 July 1918, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was born. In 1944, he became part of the African National Congress (ANC), formally joining the struggle against racial oppression and discrimination in South Africa. In 1952, he was arrested for the first time in relation to his activism, and 12 years later in 1962, Nelson Mandela was sentenced to life imprisonment. He spent 27 years in prison, walking out from Victor Verster Prison on 11 February 1990. In 1994, he became the first democratically elected president in South Africa.

100 years after the birth of Nelson Mandela, his name and legacy continue to be a national conversation in South Africa. Whether it be efforts to hold his life and his message of an equal society as a rallying point for healing and unity, or calls to examine his legacy and presidency more critically, Nelson Mandela remains an important figure for South African society and politics. The centenary celebrations, coined #Madiba100, have triggered reflections on his role in South Africa and how best to continue his work.

However, an equally important part of Nelson Mandela’s legacy was his determination to advance African unity and development.

Nelson Mandela belongs to a generation of African politicians famous for their involvement in anti-colonial struggles. As Commander-in-chief of Umkhonto we Sizwe, ANC’s armed wing, he secretly slipped out of apartheid South Africa to train in Ethiopia. In his travels he was more than just a representative of the ANC – he was a man who wanted to learn from others on his continent in his personal fight against injustice. Mandela met with Julius Nyerere in then Tanganyika. He was personally invited by Emperor Haile Selassie to train. It was in Ethiopia that Mandela became a soldier and made the first steps in becoming an African statesman. It’s clear that the trip had a profound effect on both Mandela and Ethiopia: it signalled the beginning of a continental movement against colonial rule. For Mandela, it affirmed what he already knew: that the struggle for liberation was not for South Africa alone. All of Africa had to be free, and all of Africa had to work together to achieve that dream.

This principle of African cooperation stayed with Mandela all his life. Just as he received support, training and shelter by his African peers, so too did he use his position to try bring peace to regions affected by war and civil unrest. As the chair of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) in 1997, Mandela advanced the consolidation of the organisation, and the inclusion other countries for better regional development. After he stepped down as president in 1999, Mandela assumed the role of mediator in Burundi during the country’s civil war. After two years of mediation between the 19 groups involved – a process Mandela described as “alarmingly slow, painful and costly” – the 2000 Arusha Accords were born. Mandela also pushed for peace in the Democratic Republic of Congo. He assisted in the transfer of power from Mobutu Sese Seko to Joseph Kabila, and once again became an unofficial mediator in the country’s civil war. Although his efforts in the DRC were unsuccessful, Mandela didn’t give up hope that regional leaders would all come to the table and implement an effective peace plan.

The highlight of Mandela’s African legacy has come through the Mandela Rhodes Foundation, a merging of his two passions: access to education, and the development of leadership. Created in 2003, the foundation is a partnership between Nelson Mandela and the Rhodes Trust – a deliberate choice in bringing together two fundamentally different legacies to invest in the future of Africa. To quote Mandela: “The central purpose of the Mandela Rhodes Foundation is to build exceptional leadership capacity in Africa.”

Earlier this year, I became a Mandela Rhodes Scholar.

I’m not a South African national. Born and raised in Zimbabwe, I always experienced Mandela through the television or odd newspaper. I was only a year old when he became president, the media frenzy around his release and election passing me by completely. When I applied for the Mandela Rhodes scholarship, I was unsure about whether I even had the right to apply. After all, as a South African icon, surely his legacy should benefit his compatriots? Given South Africa’s publicised history of xenophobia, I questioned whether I would be welcomed and treated into a foundation deeply centered in South African history and society.

However, in everything I saw and read about him, I didn’t realise that Mandela was a South and African and African statesman. His vision of inclusivity and equality didn’t just speak to South Africa’s reality. His legacy spoke to and included me too. It included the 18 countries represented in the Mandela Rhodes Scholarship programme: Togo, Cameroon, Malawi, Mauritius, Egypt, and every year, the number grows. Now six months into my residency in the programme, I’ve met and interacted with people and cultures from across Africa, all brought together under Mandela’s call of “aspire to be.” From different cultures and upbringings and academic fields, we’re united in our deep desire to make Africa a better place for everyone. It’s been through my interactions with them that I fully appreciate and belong to Mandela’s legacy. Were it not for him, I would never have met them. I don’t feel that sense of detachment from Mandela’s words and legacy anymore, because I now understand that those words speak to me and that I am now a part of that legacy. It’s a legacy that includes everyone who wants to make a positive change, who is ready to fight against injustice, and who believes in the dream of a progressive and inclusive society.

Mandela was a fervent believer in the transformative power of education. For Africa’s youth, he believed that access to education was the way to break cycles of inequality, build an inclusive community, and for Africa to develop together. 15 years after the first eight Mandela Rhodes Scholars enrolled in postgraduate programmes in South African universities, there are currently 100 Mandela Rhodes scholars in residence for 2018.

100 years after the birth of Nelson Mandela, much has changed on the continent he loved so dearly. He recognised that there was more to African unity than fighting back against colonialism and apartheid: that ultimately, it was up to African leaders to fight for peace, development, access to resources and unity. In his early years, he learnt from others like him, and in turn, when he had the opportunity, he gave back to them.

For me, a 2018 Mandela Rhodes Scholar, it’s a time to fully appreciate how someone I never met could play such a big part in shaping my future and outlook about what it means to be an African leader.

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