12/09/2013 09:38 am ET Updated Feb 08, 2014

Nelson Mandela and Why I'm in South Africa

I went to sleep last Thursday night to the howling winds of Cape Town's summer southeaster, and woke up the next morning to the news that Nelson Mandela had passed away.

Most mornings, I drink in my flat's view of Table Mountain, my eyes soothed by its calm majesty and the knowledge that its shape and flora are utterly unique. That morning, I couldn't help but make the leap: Madiba was that singular, solid, reassuring force for a country slowly, fitfully transforming itself from one of the world's most oppressive regimes into one of its most progressive young democracies.

Dozens of messages came pouring in from friends and family in the United States about how the country must be going crazy and what must it be like to be there. But South Africans have been preparing for Madiba's death for months now. What I encountered that day with everyone I met was a sober, heartfelt, deep reflection of what he meant to the country and how we must live up to his vision of what South Africa can become.

When I first came here, Mandela was still President. Studying politics and economic development at the University of Cape Town, I not only learned about the many layers of South Africa's history, I got to witness it firsthand, as Mandela left office with his characteristic grace and the country's second black president was democratically elected.

Working out in the townships, I saw what it meant for people to know they were counted after decades of being treated as sub-human. Hope was thick in the air. South Africa was not only one of the most physically beautiful places on earth, its national character allowed for change and growth in a way that deeply touched me. It was psychically beautiful.

That capacity for self-aware and even self-deprecating transformation, the belief it can be done if you work hard enough and keep it always as your lodestone, was Mandela's true gift to the country, to the world and to me. It has motivated me to deliberately choose empathy and forgiveness when faced with cruelty and callousness, and to visualize how the world can be a better place and work at making it so.

Two years ago I returned to South Africa for the first time in more than a decade and saw that technology was transforming people's lives. Even in the most remote areas, people living in thatched-roof huts had cell phones. As a journalist covering technology and innovation in the US, it set my mind ablaze -- technology is helping people realize their own potential in a way that simply wasn't possible before. I resolved to be part of it.

And so, when I quit my job as a television producer in New York and moved back to South Africa five months ago with a lot of ideas but no concrete plan of what I was going to do when I got here, some people thought I was nuts. Others marveled at my "bravery" at leaving my great job in my home city for the unknown.

But it wasn't really unknown to me, it had just crystallized half a world away. A future where all people get to unleash the power of their own creativity, that is what Mandela fought for. It might sound grandiose and impossible, but so did an oppressive regime voluntarily giving up its stranglehold on power.

And yet, it did.

Twenty years later, South Africa is promising and troubling. It is rich and poor in ways far more complex than just the mansions and shacks 15 minutes drive apart. It has come so far, but still feels shaky and fragile. And living here as an American is both laughably easy and a true test of your mettle.

But the inspiration of Madiba keeps people working for a better future. I am humbled to call this country my home.