In 2002, I was invited to spend 10 days and nights with Nelson Mandela. We shared 29 consecutive meals—breakfast, lunch and dinner at his table in Qunu. For me to have a seat at this man’s table—to break bread and linger over conversation, and laugh and listen and actually bear witness to his nobility, to his humility, to his tenderness...to his wit and his courage—was one of the greatest honors of my life. And by the end of our visit, I could honestly describe him as a friend. It’s a word that I never use lightly.
Nelson Mandela, as we all know, entered prison as a man defiant and determined. He left 27 years later not only a president, but in my mind—and I know in South Africa’s mind—a king. He was a king in every sense of the word. He commanded respect, he modeled integrity, he brought joy and hope to every life he touched. He used his power judiciously. He could have crushed his oppressors; instead, he chose to defeat them without ever dishonoring them. He thought to reconcile,not to retaliate.
During his time in prison, he was not allowed to raise his own children, so instead he came out and he raised a nation. We’re all the better because Nelson Mandela lived! Every single one of us has the ability to strengthen somebody through small acts of kindness.
His legacy continues to live, and it speaks to us—urges each one of us to become a global citizen forging a more equitable and secure world for all people. We can use this global citizen platform to fuel a movement of individual acts of grace and heroism and humanity, just as Madiba wanted. And we can recognize that it really doesn’t take a lot to pull another person from despair. Every single one of us has the ability to comfort and strengthen somebody through small acts of kindness. By buying sanitary pads or buying books or providing clean water, we can open someone’s world to new possibilities—better opportunities and a much deeper than faith in humanity. We can help somebody to feel if not cherished, which is my very favorite word, we can help somebody to feel at least not alone. And that, my friends, is everything.
You know, I always thought it was because Madiba was a citizen of the world that he really got to see how the power of one leads to the empowering of many. He knew when a society is wounded, we all bleed. That when many are lacking, all of us are less than we could be. Until each of us is truly free, all of us are in shackles. He understood what a remarkable gift we give when one person offers comfort and strength to another. You can make the kind of joyful noise that turns hope into action for someone.
Nelson Mandela said something else that seems particularly apropos. He said “music is a great blessing, because it gets people free to dream. It can get unite us to all sing with one voice. I want all of us to leave here tonight not just having enjoyed this amazing day and fantastic festival, but also leave here dreaming big about what more we can do to dig deep into the world and help push it to a better place.
Sing your song. Sing it loud, and sing in your own voice your own way. Sing it from the space you hold right now, and you can make the kind of joyful noise that turns hope into action for someone who is not as blessed as you have been. Let me tell you, no matter what’s going down in your life, there’s always somebody out there who’s not as blessed as you have been.
If you do even one small thing every day, you’ll be building your own legacy. Because as Maya Angelou taught me: Your legacy isn’t some big grand gesture that’s waiting to happen, your legacy is every life you touch. So I’ve been fortunate to witness up close and personal that when you help someone else, your blessings return to you 10 times.
I built a school in South Africa to help girls become leaders of a new South Africa. Every time one of them succeeds, it is my greatest reward. Nelson Mandela was living proof that when we help others. When we free others, we are the ones who actually get liberated. When we elevate somebody, you not only get lifted, you get to soar.
Let’s insist on a world where every girl, child, is protected, and every little boy feels safe. Let’s pledge ourselves to being true global citizens—and let us at long last become the change we want to see in education, in clean water, in health, in gender equality everywhere.
We’re all on this sacred earth to all get along. Can we just get along? We’re here to learn to take care of ourselves, to give a hand up to those who are all falling behind. We can and we must and we will live in a society where—as Madiba explained—overcoming poverty is not just a gesture of charity. It is an act of justice.
So pick a cause, get busy. Let’s build together, let’s learn together. Let’s leave this place locking arms together and creating a better planet in which to live!
By Oprah Winfrey
The author is an American media executive, actress, talk show host, television producer and philanthropist.