I came of age in that period of just a few years when the Cold War ended, and Apartheid in South Africa ended. Mikhail Gorbachev did his part, in a mostly technocratic way, while Nelson Mandela had a more emotional appeal.
Nelson Mandela was one of just a few people who can truly be said to have played a key role in history. What he symbolizes to me is the idea that the way things are in the world isn't necessarily the way they have to be. Cold Wars don’t have to go on indefinitely. Totalitarian regimes that wield dictatorial power don’t have the power to sustain themselves forever. The players on the world’s chessboard in your childhood may be different when you are an adult. Not just in different positions, but with entirely new pieces. This is both liberating and frightening.
I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that it’s an important idea for disabled people. We would appear to be prisoners of “the way things are”; our bodies or minds impose difficulties that are mostly beyond our control. Yet, if we can identify things that are under our control and make the most of them, then we don’t have to erase our problems in order to triumph. Racial animosity is a reality of South Africa that nobody could undo. But Apartheid as a policy could be changed, and that was enough to help South Africa start to evolve away from racism. We can’t become un-disabled, but we can do other things that make our disabilities more manageable, and our lives excellent.
There's another angle, too worth remembering tonight. A big part of the philosophical justification for Apartheid was a very particular concept of "the way things are" ... that black people were inferior and in need of supervision from white people if they were to enjoy just the scraps of modernity. While plenty of Apartheid supporters had more selfish motives, no doubt that many really believed, on some level, that the restrictions of Apartheid were for black peoples' own good.
Anyone who has lived long enough with significant disabilities can, I'm sure, understand that idea from the opposite end. One of the things Nelson Mandela did was to show that freedom and liberty are worth the apparent risks. Risks that are, in any case, probably overblown.
Rest in peace, Nelson Mandela.