Rep Helen Giddings
Rep Helen Giddings

Texas House of Representatives

July 18 was the 100th anniversary of President Nelson Mandela’s birth – and a time to reflect on his life, legacy and impact on society globally.

In 2009, the United Nations general assembly unanimously adopted a resolution establishing Mandela’s birthday as a day of service. It was a call to action for people everywhere to work to effect change in their community.

After spending 27 years in prison and serving as South Africa’s first democratic president, he became one of the most respected and admired people in the world. Like all human beings Mandela was less than perfect. Even in his imperfections, his humanity came through. Having been accused of treason, he never abandoned his belief that all people should be able to live in a free society. It was a belief that he said he was willing to die for, and in fact he narrowly escaped the death penalty and was given a life sentence.

Much has been written about his life. However, the books and movies, while revealing, have never fully captured the Mandela aura. Perhaps, the words seem woefully inadequate because of his enormity and stature. He was indeed larger than life. He was a person of great integrity, honesty, compassion, humility, courage, forgiveness and selflessness – just to cite a few of his many noble attributes. He was the soul of South Africa and a global champion for freedom, dignity and justice. Additionally, his ability to relate to people at every level and to win over “would be” adversaries made him unique. Unique is used here without hesitation in describing this transformative figure.

I am fortunate to have had the opportunity to meet and get to know him in 1995. His personal assistant came to Johannesburg, at his direction, to pick me up and drive me to the president’s home in Pretoria. I was a guest at a small state dinner for the president of Tanzania. Afterward, I was privileged to have a private meeting with President Mandela. He expressed his gratitude on behalf of the people of South Africa for the role Americans played in bringing down apartheid. He thanked me, along with then Sen. Rodney Ellis, for our efforts in the removal of sanctions against South Africa from the Texas Constitution, after a democratic government was in place. Later he invited me to attend the ceremony when he was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal and he invited me to the luncheon at the South African Embassy afterward.

There was no doubt in my mind that I was standing in the presence of greatness. His comments appeared genuine and heartfelt. He made me feel our efforts mattered and were appreciated.

Mandela strongly believed that each of us has a moral responsibility and obligation to do what we can to create a better world. He said, “We can change the world and make it a better place. It is in your hands to make a difference.” Indeed he made a difference and left a great legacy. In his life of 95 years, he gave 67 plus years of dedicated public service. As he said, “What counts in life is not the mere fact that we lived. It is what difference we have made in the lives of others …”

Looking back on the life of an ordinary person who became an extraordinary advocate for giving and global peace, it is appropriate that the U.N. in an unprecedented action asked the world to celebrate a day of service in his honor.

Let’s all give 67 minutes of service – one minute for every year of his service – on this centenary anniversary of the birth of one of the greatest humanitarians. Join the world’s salute and commemorate Mandela’s message of giving.

Our world will be better because we paid it forward.

State Representative Helen Giddings represents District 109 in the in the Texas House of Representatives.

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