Why is Nelson Mandela so Great?

Okay, I’ll be honest: when I heard that Nelson Mandela had passed away last week, two things initially came to mind: the America’s Next Top Model episode where the finalists visited his prison cell, and that one rugby movie with Morgan Freeman. I’m only human.

My thought process reaffirms that pop culture hasn’t acknowledged Mandela’s accomplishments much—yet everyone still knows his name. If you watch ANTM more than the news, here are a few noteworthy (and chronological) reasons* that explain why he became a figure for political and social justice:

  • During his activist years, he started the law firm Mandela & Tambo. The firm provided affordable legal services to unrepresented blacks in South Africa.
  • After organizing a national workers’ strike, he was sentenced to life imprisonment for sabotage.
  • While imprisoned, he earned a Bachelor of Law degree through the University of London.
  • He gained such notoriety as an anti-apartheid figure that multiple countries campaigned for his release.
  • After many failed negotiations, he finally left prison when Frederik Willem de Klerk was elected president of South Africa. (Even cooler is his forgiving attitude about the whole imprisonment thing.)
  • In 1991, he was elected president of the African National Congress (a formerly illegal political party that Mandela joined in 1943).

Nelson Mandela

  • In 1993, he was jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize with F.W. de Klerk for their efforts to end apartheid.
  • After the country’s first democratic elections in 1994, he was elected president of South Africa and published his first book, Long Walk to Freedom (which he mostly wrote in prison.)
  • His support for South Africa’s national rugby team as a catalyst for racial reconciliation inspired the film Invictus.
  • After retiring from politics, he formed “The Elders,” a group of world leaders that works for political and charitable causes around the world.
  • He also founded three foundations: the Nelson Mandela Foundation, the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund, and the Mandela Rhodes Foundation. Each promotes a different aspect of his work.

If you feel particularly inspired by this man’s work, consider donating to one of his organizations here. However, many would argue that Mandela’s real legacy lies in teaching us that ordinary people can become extraordinary by shamelessly acting on their beliefs. It’s a lesson we can all identify with—even if you don’t watch Top Model.

*You can find many of these facts in this Biography account of Mandela’s life.



Amanda Suazo, editor, joined BSB in 2010 as the writing guru for the organization’s website, official documents, and documentary before focusing a bit on philanthropy. Now a graduate of Gonzaga University, she is currently an MBA student and freelance writer. Between Zumba classes and downing espresso, you might catch her attempting to be a vegetarian. Find her on Twitter.

Limbo at Guantánamo Bay

On the heels of President Obama’s public reaffirmation and four years after his original promise to close the detention center at Guantánamo Bay, many are now simply wondering, “When?”

Earlier last month, the New York Times published a prisoner’s harrowing account of his own experiences at Guantánamo. An issue long forgotten by much of the American public, the Guantánamo debate was forcefully reignited as Samir Naji al Hasan Mobeq’s plea to “the eyes of the world” rippled through newspapers and television stations.

Recent inmate hunger strikes and subsequent force feedings, which themselves have been denounced as unethical by the American Medical Association, have once again turned the nation’s attention to Guantánamo. Added upon previous allegations of torture, the hunger strikes have left more and more people with the chilling sense that this, this cannot be justice.

The Guantánamo issue exemplifies the polarizing tension between national security and the rights afforded to suspects. In the wake of September 11, it’s not hard to imagine the reactions that contributed to the detainment of suspected terrorists, not hard to justify holding them without due process. However, now more than a decade after its inception, Guantánamo still holds over 100 prisoners who have neither been charged nor tried.

We often, understandably, let personal emotions seep into the political and the legal spheres. This is not an exclusively American phenomenon (see this, for example). Catchy, I know, but far from productive. Our immediate reactions are governed by our beliefs, our fears, our hopes. But a knee-jerk response too often clouds reason. And in the case of Guantánamo, reason has come roaring to the American public that this place is at odds with the fundamental rights we value as citizens and as fellow human beings.


Amongst the rows of prison cells in Guantánamo, there is a hall of hauntingly beautiful landscapes painted by the inmates. They are a striking reminder of the humanity in us all. From the increasing support for Guantánamo’s speedy closure, I venture to say that we have not yet become so calloused that we are willing to sacrifice human rights for politics, human dignity for security. Nor should we be. These men are entitled to either release or trial. Let the law, and nothing short of the law, pass judgment.



Serena Yin graduated with a degree in English from Johns Hopkins University in 2013. She is joining the Washington Reading Corps to promote literacy in local schools. A New England native, she loves ballet, beaches, and hamburgers. When she’s not on the hunt for the nearest Starbucks, she’s working on realizing her lifelong dream of meeting J.K. Rowling.