Not Your Average Superman by Jordyn Gressier
When you hear the word “hero,” whom do you think of? The natural response would probably be to picture Superman flying through the air, or Batman perched on a skyscraper above Gotham. These fictional characters have become deeply ingrained in popular culture, such that they are now often the go-to image with which people associate the word “superhero,” for they epitomize heroism in their motivations and virtues. The question is, what exactly are the characteristics that a person must possess in order for society to deem him or her a “hero?” To try and come up with a specific answer, I decided to solicit input from some strangers. Ten strangers at the Portola Coffee lab- a mix of old and young- were politely interrupted from their coffee-drinking to answer the question: “What do you consider to be the defining characteristics of a person who is a hero?” The word “selfless” was the most common response, but I also received “steadfast,” “diligent,” “brave,” “life-saving,” “generous,” “self-sacrificing,” and “passionate.” And while I agree that these are all admirable traits, I also believe that a hero is a someone who is committed to attaining freedom and justice for a greater good.
So, what about real life heroes? What non-fictional people could fit this mold? Who adheres to these tenets of heroism? I’m sure that there are many answers to this question, but I want to talk about a specific person that I feel fully embodies what it means to be hero- Nelson Mandela. Most people are aware of his recent passing; even if you did not know anything about him, you probably heard about his death at the beginning of December. And there is a reason for this. Nelson Mandela was a revered figure, a man of immense historical significance who became an enduring symbol of freedom and liberty for his influential efforts and eventual success in bringing down apartheid in South Africa. Mandela fought a nonstop battle against racism in his home land, and showed the world through his efforts, actions, and spirit what it means to be a hero.
Mandela was born with the name Rolihlahla Mandela, but was rechristened “Nelson” by his Christian grade school teacher. Nelson’s interest in activism began at a young age. In 1940, when barely a young adult, Nelson entered and swiftly was expelled from the University of Fort Hare, an elite western-style University, for organizing a boycott of some unjust university policies. Mandela eventually went back to school to study law and opened up the first racial law office, offering low-cost and even free law counsel for those suffering from oppression under apartheid. Mandela’s crusade against injustice didn’t end there. He soon became involved with the African National Congress (ANC), a group of African people united in their goal of establishing a non-racist and non-sexist democratic society. As an active member of this political party, Mandela organized many peaceful protests; the first landed him in jail for nine months when his protest involved breaking curfew regulations. Mandela was also prohibited from taking part in any ANC activity for five years, but he wasn’t deterred by this ban. Instead, he continued to meet covertly with congress members, and organized many more peaceful protests over the years. Mandela was imprisoned a second time for a span of five years upon being charged with helping to lead and organize armed protests. In 1964, while Mandela was serving his time in prison, police raided the secret ANC headquarters and extended Mandela’s sentence to life by charging him with conspiracy to overthrow the government. However, even while imprisoned Mandela’s spirit was never broken, and he met with three different democratic political groups and the new state president to try to arrange his release. After twenty-seven long years, Mandela was finally freed in 1990, and four years later became president of South Africa in the country’s first democratic election. He promised that his government would fight against discrimination of any kind, and pledged “to enter into a covenant to build a society in which all South Africans, black and white, could walk tall without fear, assured of their rights to human dignity, a nation at peace with itself and the world.” After leaving office Mandela retired from active politics, but remained a strong international figure as an advocate of peace, reconciliation, and social justice. For his incredible achievements, Mandela won a Nobel peace prize; the majority of the money that he received he donated to charities for children.
Clearly, Mandela was a selfless, compassionate human being who believed in justice and fought with all of his power to attain this ideal. He understood the consequences that his actions could have, and the punishments the government could rain down upon him for his rebellious behavior, but he did not back down. Mandela was relentless in his pursuit of freedom from the oppression of apartheid.
So, what does define a hero? It’s not just a fictional character, or someone who is merely selfless, but someone whose impact is enduring. Someone who can not only be steadfast, diligent, brave, life-saving, generous, self-sacrificing, and passionate, but who can utilize these attributes to change the world for the better. Mandela demonstrated these qualities throughout his life, and for this reason he will be remembered as an inspiration for many generations to come. He strove for a better world, making the enormous sacrifices necessary to realize his dream, and that, in the end, is a true hero.