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On the Importance of Being Compassionate

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As we approached the end of 2013, I started reflecting on the most important thing I learned last year. I have spent a lot of my life so far trying to figure out what the greatest quality of a human being is. I decided a few years ago that it must be courage. It took me almost 30 years of life to understand that the greatest quality for human beings is actually compassion. And yes, it is all thanks to Nelson Mandela.

At the beginning of October I spent an epic week in South Africa (SA) as part of a trip to the One Young World 2013 Summit in Johannesburg. I believe it is impossible to go to SA without coming to that same conclusion. During the Summit, we heard from people such as comrade Ahmed Kathrada, politician Mamphela Ramphele, rugby player François Pienaar and even Winnie Mandela. They were all representative of how fire can be passed beautifully from candle to candle once inspired and lit by the flame of someone like Madiba. The difference between them and some of the other speakers was palpable. It could not be simply explained by the obvious enthusiasm from the South African delegates towards them. They embodied the leap in compassion necessary in order to become great leaders and free their minds to forgive their Apartheid oppressors.

However, my experience in SA had not started on such a hopeful note. Due to popular request, I decided to do a short trip to Cape Town before the conference and you know what? The Mother City would have been paradise on earth if it had not been for the underlying segregation that I witnessed too often around me. It is almost impossible to find black South Africans enjoying the beautiful surroundings or the luxuries available to their white compatriots. You can see them hitchhiking on immaculate highways, serving you or cleaning, but you will not see them eating out or surfing. I think the class disparity is particularly evident, relative to other developing countries I have visited, because of the clear contrast in skin color between those who have and those who do not. It really does matter whether you are 'black or white.' Don't get me wrong, the Afrikaners have their own crosses to bear. Most have dealt first hand with levels of violence and aggression from the black community that would leave any Western citizen in tatters, needing at least ten years of therapy to recover.

Johannesburg could not have been more different and my experience there was overall a more sober affair. I took a tour bus where the only place tourists felt 'safe' to get off (myself included) was the Apartheid museum. I kept looking in horror at the parts of the city center that the voice in my headset mentioned as being prime real estate. I am not sure who advised them on the urban planning but 'brown/washed colors' and 'derelict' were the words that came to mind. It was such a contrast to the sleek architecture of Cape Town. And yes, it was overwhelming and scary to get off the bus at any point before the museum (where many of us wept from the poignant visit). Not least because of all the stories and statistics you hear which I did not want to be part of. I would like to caveat this; however, by saying that I know a lot of people living in Johannesburg and have had no issues at all. Unfortunately, preconceptions prevail when you are a young woman traveling alone with a limited amount of time.

After this emotional sightseeing in the two main cities of SA, the secret seemed to reveal itself to me naturally. The solution to all this, when faced with so much injustice, violence and irrational behaviour turns out to be compassion. It's not just a solution, it is the only solution. The only one that can completely squash and eradicate the still latent fear between these different communities that live under the sky of the Rainbow Nation. And this is why as an audience we felt in the presence of angels or super humans or saints (or whatever you want to call them) when listening to the speakers at the Summit.

François Pienaar was touchingly emotive and Ahmed Kathrada (with whom I had the privilege to spend an afternoon) gave us as close a rendition as to what it would have been like to meet Mandela. As for Mamphela Ramphele, I have high hopes for the new political party she is trying to form. Anyways, everything they said emanated truth and there was something special that happened to the listeners each time they spoke, because through Madiba's 'Long Walk to Freedom' and their own, they had become mighty compassionate beings.

Even if prison might have been necessary for Nelson and his comrades, like the 40 days in the desert, to find inner peace, it doesn't diminish the feat of deeply grasping that the only way forward was compassion. Their achievements are real; the forgiveness is real, not just political savvy and definitely not a hypocritical melodramatic coup.

Anything that reminds you of the Apartheid also reminds you of how far South Africans have come. But at the same time of how far they still need to go to overcome the remnants of the grotesque situation they lived in for five decades. The country still needs a little bit more greatness to make sure all of its children see each other as equal human beings. I truly hope that remembering Mandela's fantastic story does the trick to generate new leaders.

We should really all revel in his legacy, because for all Mandela's advertised faults, there is no denying that he was an extraordinary man. I left SA feeling grateful for teaching us all and helping me reflect on the importance of being compassionate. Nelson Mandela paved the path to freedom for South Africans, but they are going to have to look within to finish his Walk.

May your 2014 be compassionate!