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Nelson Mandela’s impact didn’t truly resonate with me until I visited Italy two years ago and became friends with a woman who was born in South Africa but emigrated to Australia. I asked her, “Why Australia?” My friend: “Because of apartheid.” I was speechless. I wanted to continue the conversation with her but we were interrupted by something, and it never came up again.

Apartheid – racism by law – wasn’t something I had ever been introduced to first-hand, in spite of the fact that I’d gone to high school with a (white) South African family and worked with a (white) South African man in college. I’d only read about it in books and news magazines.

This was the other side. And I wanted to find out more, but never did. We didn’t speak of it further, but instead formed a fast friendship during the tour of Italy, based upon the fact that we were both outgoing people who shared similar interests and a certain wanderlust. Yet I had put a face to apartheid. It was not how I expected it to be, a wonderfully funny woman who spent her life helping others and finding the good in them.

***

Apartheid is institutionalized racism. And I thank God now that it has been legally abolished in South Africa for nearly 20 years. The minority white ruled the government. Whites and blacks could not marry in South Africa. Native men and women were forced to live in shantytowns, and lost their basic human rights. If you ever watch the movie “District 9,” it is a sharp, sharp metaphor to what happened in South Africa for nearly 50 years.

Mr. Mandela chose to stand up against the hatred and the laws that kept his countrymen – regardless of their color or social standing – from truly being free. He was jailed for 27 years, essentially for leading an uprising against his government in South Africa. He wanted what was right, not what was written down. He was punished. He found peace in prison and when he was released, he became an advocate for human rights.

My first introduction to apartheid – no joke – came through MTV. During the 1980s and 1990s, the iconic cable music channel aired videos in which musicians took a stand, whether it was Madonna’s “Papa Don’t Preach,” or U2’s “Sunday Bloody Sunday” or Midnight Oil’s “Beds are Burning.”

Musicians took on apartheid, as well. I’m watching this now and going, “yo, Hall and Oates! … Silvio Dante! … Rev Run! … P-Funk! … The Boss!”

But these musicians were sending a political message.

As an elementary school student, I didn’t know what was going on thousands of miles away, I didn’t know where Sun City was and I didn’t have a clue about apartheid, but I knew this: Little Stevie, George Clinton and the Fat Boys were telling me something was wrong, and they wanted me to do something about it, or at least to care.

***
I had a teacher in the seventh grade – Miss Raleigh – who traveled the world and who was one of the first instructors who encouraged students to think for themselves and to understand the world around them. The great thing about Miss Raleigh was that not only did she want her students to embrace their own gifts, but she wanted us to know what was happening in places other than in our classroom or in the Annapolis area and why we should care. She wanted us to be global and to realize that the same values we had here in the U.S. could be shared across countries and cultures. It’s like my dad says – “we’re all different, but we’re all the same.”

She wanted us to raise money and to donate to UNICEF. She wanted us to make posters about different parts of the world and what we didn’t know about them. She wanted us to know who people like Yasser Arafat, Indira Gandhi, Benito Mussolini, Mikhail Gorbachev and Nelson Mandela were – that they weren’t just people whose faces we saw on the cover of the magazines our parents subscribed to, or the faces we saw on the news.

She wanted us to be able to express our thoughts, feelings and opinions on what was happening in the world.

Miss Raleigh’s seventh grade social studies class? That’s when I truly learned what this whole apartheid thing was about. Much like our country – only on a sadder and bigger scale – one country was still implementing racism, which was wrong. Wrong. This was less than 30 years after the Civil Rights Act took effect in our country and Miss Raleigh was still angry and saddened by what was going on halfway around the world. Her classroom was one of the few places where I’d ever seen an instructor shed tears. After we watched a movie about apartheid, she asked us why we thought what was happening in South Africa was wrong – or why it was right. We knew it wasn’t right. She cried for the wrongs of the world, and I know she wanted us to understand those wrongs as well – she knew we had some kind of power not so much to change the world but to change our own perceptions.

***

Today, Nelson Mandela died.

Right now CNN is showing footage of people dancing, singing and chanting for Mr. Mandela outside of his home in Johannesburg. A white woman and a black man have their arms around each other’s shoulders. An Indian or Indonesian woman, maybe, has crossed across the camera. Another white woman is holding a black baby. An Asian person is videotaping this on his BlackBerry. A black woman is dancing. The ubiquitous South African flag is waving above everybody. It makes you appreciate humanity.

Without Mr. Mandela, without his self-sacrifice, his selflessness, his desire to unite people and to eliminate the wrong that affected his nation … we wouldn’t have any of this.

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