Mandela Inspired a Generation of Young People to Realize Their Potential: We Must Follow His Lead

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Over the past few weeks, people around the world have been celebrating the life of Nelson Mandela, including many of us at the International Youth Foundation. Our Program Director for Africa, Matthew Breman,  has worked and lived in Africa for many years, and was inspired to share his reflections on this remarkable world leader. Previous to joining IYF this year, Matthew worked in West and Central Africa programs at Chemonics International, was Peace Corps Country Director in Cape Verde, and Catholic Relief Services Country Representative in Angola. And as you’ll read below, he is also an avid soccer player.

Nelson Mandela’s recent passing brings rise to many emotions—especially for those of us who have been living or working on the African continent for some time. For me, nothing was greater than his leadership and genuine care for humanity. Madiba (as he was affectionately known) was viewed as a father figure—by his nation, and by millions of people from around the world. He also had a passion for young people, inspiring generations of youth to embrace life’s possibilities. At a speech he gave in South Africa in 2003, he noted: “We understand and promote the notion that while children need to be guided they also have an entrenched right to be whatever they want to be, and that they can achieve this only if they are given the space to dream and live out their dreams.”

These are the same young people who are at the center of our work at the International Youth Foundation, not only in Africa but around the world. Our commitment to empowering young women and men to be educated, employment-ready, healthy, and engaged citizens can be our way of continuing to blaze a trail in Mandela’s footsteps and vision. As he has said many times, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”

Mandela not only sought to improve the lives and prospects of South African youth. He also saw them as the embodiment of hope for his country’s future. “Whenever I am with the energetic young people,” he said in a speech in Durban, South Africa, in 1997, “I feel like a recharged battery, confident that our country can look forward to great things.”

Lastly and close to my own heart was Mandela’s influential use of sports as a tool for social change. A boxer in his youth, Mandela understood the power of sports to influence and unify. His many quotes about the importance of this issue and his role in many of the most significant sporting events in South Africa over the last two decades speak volumes about his belief, in his words, that “sport has the power to change the world … and awaken hope where there was previously despair.” In 1995, five years after he walked out of prison and after 27 years behind bars, Mandela joyfully presented the winning trophy to the captain of the South African rugby team, the Springboks, who won the Rugby World Cup in South Africa. Despite the team’s association with apartheid (for including primarily white players), Mandela’s courageous message was one of forgiveness and unification. He understood the power of bringing a broken country together through sporting events—events which South Africa has so often hosted, including  the 1996 African Cup of Nations soccer tournament, the 2003 Cricket World Cup, and the 2010 soccer World Cup.

I believe it is our collective responsibilities to keep the Mandela flame alive by continuing to invest in the enormous potential of our young people. It’s hard for me to imagine a more fitting way to support his legacy.

sport for development nelson mandela