As the inauguration of the next US President fast approaches, commentators are assessing President Obama's legacy. Some say that only time will tell, especially given that his successor seems so set on undoing his work.
Last week, I attended a talk on another presidential legacy, that of the former President of South Africa, Nelson Mandela. A panel of speakers at the British Museum offered first-hand accounts of the man they knew. The evening was planned as part of the South Africa: the art of a nation exhibition.
Pumela Salela's account seemed to capture the best of Mandela's legacy. She spoke of his ongoing inspiration in her life. She was the beneficiary of a Nelson Mandela Scholarship. She quoted his famous words:
Pumela is the living, breathing example of his words. These are words that all nations should continue to heed today. She came from a disadvantaged background and was the first member of her family to even go to school. She remembered how he reminded her that she was his ambassador as her scholarship bears his name. At difficult moments in her life, she recalled his inspiration. She couldn't give up. Today, she represents Brand South Africa and is chair of the Nelson Mandela Scholarship Alummi Association. She passes on Mandela's lasting inspiration and legacy to others.Education is the most powerful weapon
which you can use to change the world.
The other famous quote is very familiar to linguists. Its message should endure and bring past enemies together:
If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.That he could speak Afrikaans to his former oppressors and jailers was extraordinary. The panel described Mandela's forgiveness as cunning and political. He wanted peace and justice for his nation. He used every ounce of his charm and charisma to achieve them.
At the end her of talk, Pumela recalled that Mandela's original name meant 'troublemaker'. We are all meant to challenge the status quo.
She finished by reading Marianne Williamson's A Return to Love as reflecting Mandela's lasting legacy:
"Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, 'Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?' Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone.
And as we let our light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others."Words are powerful. They live on as a legacy. They inspire others after us.
Yes we can, President Obama. Yes we can.