Remembering Nelson Mandela
John Thornton, College of Arts & Sciences professor of African American studies and history, author of Africa & Africans in the Formation of the Atlantic World, 1400–1800 (Cambridge University Press, 1992), Warfare in Atlantic Africa, 1500–1800 (Taylor and Francis, 2000), and coauthor with Linda Heywood of Central Africans, Atlantic Creoles and the Foundation of the Americas, 1585–1660 (Cambridge University Press, 2007)
How often it is that an idealistic young man joins a cause about which he is passionate and sometimes sacrifices a great deal for it? This is not at all uncommon—graves are full of passionate young people ready to sacrifice their lives for what they believe in. But how common is it, also, for those passionate young people, having begun to effect the change they sought, to find themselves yielding to other pressures and gradually becoming as much a part of the problem they addressed as the solution they aspired to?
This is exactly what makes Nelson Mandela so remarkable and even close to unique. He, like so many other young South Africans, took on the obvious evil of apartheid and racism with passion and determination. And he, like so many others, made sacrifices on behalf of the cause—in his case not his life, but his liberty. Yet when he achieved the goal and was put in the presidential palace, he refused to fall into the trap of power and wealth. He remained steadfastly committed to that goal while president, and took that conviction so far as to step aside when he felt he could no longer pursue it with sufficient energy.
Linda Heywood, CAS professor of African American studies and history, author of Contested Power in Angola: 1840s to the Present (University of Rochester Press, 2000) and coauthor with John Thornton of Central Africans, Atlantic Creoles and the Foundation of the Americas, 1585–1660 (Cambridge University Press, 2007)
Nelson Mandela and his struggle to achieve justice for his people dominated my academic life during my second year as a graduate student in African history at Columbia University in 1974, when I was a research assistant working in a dingy basement in Harlem. I was leafing through newspaper clippings and papers of the Council on Africa, an African American organization formed in the 1950s by white and black scholars and political activists who started the first public campaign to get Americans involved in public agitation to bring an end to the apartheid system. It was from that research and graduate papers done on Angolan and South African history at Columbia that I developed my passion for the South African cause. I participated in many of the boycotts of South African products and the Free Mandela campaigns of the early 1970s. When Mandela was released, it was as if my own father had been unfairly imprisoned and was now free. I came to admire Mandela even more for never using the race card, but always talking about the law, human dignity, and rights. The sight of South Africans of every color lined up along miles of streets to exercise their right to vote is an image that will remain with me forever. This was all due to the courage of Nelson Mandela. I think we are indeed blessed to have had this angel among us.
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