The death of Nelson Mandela while it had been expected is nonetheless a sad event not just for the people close to him but also for anyone who felt inspired by his struggle for social justice.  He was 95 years old at the time of his death and his health had been declining for a few years.  Many of us would like people of his stature, people who are warriors for social justice, people who struggle to build a better and more caring society, to remain in this mortal world.  However, that’s not the way the circle of life works.  So today we watch and wait as the nation of South Africa, the place where his philosophy of social justice was forged, where he was imprisoned for 27 years for fighting to uphold the principles of that philosophy, and where he became an icon and an inspiration, prepares to host the world at his funeral.

There are few people alive today who command the amount of respect and reverence that Mandela did since humanity doesn’t create people like him too often.  Other prominent individuals that come to mind who match the stature of Mandela include Martin Luther King Jr., Ghandi and the Dalai Lama.

To understand the impact that Mandela had around the world all you have to do is to look at the amount of media coverage he has received since the announcement of his death on Thursday.  It seems that every major newspaper in the world has devoted a major portion of its front page to covering the life and death of Nelson Mandela.  It is very likely that this will be one of those moments where people in the future will ask where you were when you heard that Mandela had died.

If you ask most people whether they feel any sort of personal connection to Nelson Mandela their answer would likely be no.  But if you dig below the surface many people may be surprised that they are connected to him without even realizing it.  Because of the life that he lived, his struggle to achieve racial and social equality, and his efforts to create a just society in South Africa, in a sense Mandela became connected to anyone who believed in working for social justice causes and building a society where oppression and persecution do not exist.

As I’ve followed the media coverage about Mandela since Thursday I find myself thinking about my high school years when I became aware of social injustices, a time long before I knew who Nelson Mandela was.  The high school I attended in Toronto drew its students from a community that was predominantly lower income and largely immigrant.  Going to school was like going to the United Nations everyday because the students at the school represented more than 80 countries, every faith that you could think of, and every variation of skin colour there was in the world.  In such an environment where being a minority was the common denominator one might expect that conflict would be common.  However, that was rarely the case.

During an era when racism was clearly present in Canadian society I and many of my peers were fortunate because it was rare for any of us to feel disadvantaged (let alone persecuted) due to the colour of our skin, our ethnicity, faith or country of origin.  This was not only because of the great teachers at the school but also because of an awareness among the immigrant students resulting from our lives before we arrived in Canada.  This awareness and the people we dealt with everyday — the educators, friends and acquaintances — this is what shaped our world view and it meant that all of us were fortunate enough to be ahead of the societal curve when it came to being accepting, inclusive and equitable.  In many ways we were on the front lines in the fight against racism and inequality, and we were very much aware of the injustices that existed in the world beyond the walls of our school.  So in some ways, without realizing it, we were connected to Nelson Mandela and others like him who were champions for social justice.

There are many other people in the world today who have likely lived experiences similar to what I and my friends did as teenagers.  Those experiences gave us the realization that in order to have social justice for all there has to be acceptance, inclusiveness and equality regardless of race, ethnicity, skin colour, religious belief, gender, age, disability, sexual orientation or social status.  It is that realization and the decisions we made in our lives to achieve them that connects us to Nelson Mandela and his legacy.

And while that legacy will live on well beyond Mandela’s life, as individuals who believe in social justice we need to perpetuate that legacy through our own efforts.  We need to continue the work of this man who has become a hero to many, who was an international icon for social justice, and who will be an inspiration for those who desire to build a more caring, more equitable and less selfish world.

Rest in peace Mr. Mandela.  You will be greatly missed.

Fareed Khan is a member of the Overlea Secondary School Class of 1980 and a past President of the Overlea Garneau Alumni Association (1996-2001, 2007-2013). He’s currently a Government Affairs and Public Relations consultant at JFK Associates Consulting & Management, as well as a graduate student at Carleton University.