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Celebrating the life of Nelson Mandela, continuing the quest for social justice

By Barry S. Levy and Victor W. Sidel

Once or twice in a generation a global champion for social justice emerges. Martin Luther King, Jr. Mahatma Gandhi. Nelson Mandela. A person with extraordinary vision and supreme character leads a movement that brings about major sociopolitical change. Civil rights in America. Independence for India. The end of apartheid in South Africa.

When these champions for social justice die, we mourn their passing and we celebrate who they were and what they accomplished. At these times, we also try to understand what made these leaders so successful, how they created extraordinary — seemingly impossible — visions and translated these visions into reality. And, at these times, we also reassess where we, as a global society, stand in the quest for social justice — how far we’ve come and how far there is yet to go.

Addressing social injustice requires individuals acting together in organizations or mass movements. A small group of individuals often initiates progressive change. But it takes many more people with diverse talents to bring about a sociopolitical transformation. Nelson Mandela understood this very well. He also knew that diverse kinds of activities are needed for a movement to be successful: documenting problems, raising awareness of these problems, developing and implementing strategies and tactics to address them, inspiring people to take action, engaging in advocacy, organizing demonstrations, building financial support, and sometimes engaging in civil disobedience.


In his own words, Nelson Mandela gave us insight into what makes a movement successful. For example, he valued education, which he called “the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” He understood the importance of creating and maintaining a vision: “It always seems impossible until it’s done.” He knew when to seize the moment: “We must…realize that the time is always ripe to do right.” He understood effective tactics: “If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner.” He knew how to inspire people: “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”

As successful as Nelson Mandela and other champions of social justice have been, the work is not complete, major problems remain, and the quest for social justice continues. Only some civil rights for minority groups in America have been achieved, and those that have been achieved are continually being threatened. India remains politically independent, but struggles with widespread poverty and significant public health challenges. And, although there have been socioeconomic and political gains for blacks in South Africa, black-white segregation is largely unchanged and socioeconomic gaps between white- and black-led households are increasing — they have almost doubled during the past decade. In addition, HIV/AIDS is rampant and “diabesity” (the combination of obesity and diabetes) is increasing at an alarming rate.

So, as we celebrate the life of Nelson Mandela and face the daunting challenges of social injustice that remain, let us be inspired by the words of Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Let us heed the words of Mahatma Gandhi: “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” And let us remember the words of Nelson Mandela: “After climbing a great hill, one only finds there are many more hills to climb.”

Barry S, Levy, M.D., M.P.H., and Victor W. Sidel, M.D., are co-editors of the recently published second edition of Social Injustice and Public Health as well as two editions each of the books War and Public Health and Terrorism and Public Health, all of which have been published by Oxford University Press. They are both past presidents of the American Public Health Association. Dr. Levy is an Adjunct Professor of Public Health at Tufts University School of Medicine. Dr. Sidel is Distinguished University Professor of Social Medicine Emeritus at Montefiore Medical Center and Albert Einstein Medical College and an Adjunct Professor of Public Health at Weill Cornell Medical College.

Image credit: Johannesburg, South Africa – February 13, 1990 : Former South African President Nelson Mandela, shows the freedom salute after his release from prison. © ruvanboshoff via iStockphoto.

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