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Remembering Nelson Mandela

BU community weighs antiapartheid leader’s towering legacy

Boston University BU, faculty opinions, nobel peace prize recipient Nelson Mandela legacy, South Africa beloved leader, apartheid

Nelson Mandela, 1918-2013. Photo courtesy of South Africa The Good News

The world is mourning the loss of Nelson Mandela, winner of the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize, who spent a lifetime fighting racism and inequality. Mandela, 95, died yesterday at his Johannesburg home. The former African National Congress leader, once quoted as saying, “There is no easy walk to freedom anywhere,” was imprisoned for 27 years for his antiapartheid activism. Following his release in 1990, Mandela—a tireless advocate of peaceful reconciliation after apartheid’s dismantling—went on to become South Africa’s first black president, in 1994. He served one term, stepping down from office in 1999. One of Mandela’s daughters graduated from BU. Zenani Mandela Dlamini (MET’92) is the South African ambassador to Argentina.

BU Today asked several Africa scholars and others on campus to comment on Mandela’s life and enduring legacy.

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.

Boston University BU, faculty opinions, nobel peace prize recipient Nelson Mandela legacy, South Africa beloved leader, apartheid

Nelson Mandela in 1937.

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.

Timothy Longman, director, African Studies Center, and CAS associate professor of political science, author of Christianity and Genocide in Rwanda (Cambridge University Press, 2009)

Nelson Mandela was an important figure for African politics because of how he acted in office—his decision not to seek vengeance against those who had imprisoned him and oppressed his people, his willingness to share power with former enemies, and ultimately his decision to step out of power voluntarily. Democracy and good governance are based more on good political practices than on laws and constitutions, and Mandela is a towering figure because he established the practices of limiting presidential power. In African politics, presidents who allow their power to be limited have been unfortunately rare, and Mandela’s willingness to do so helped launch South Africa on a positive political path.

Boston University BU, faculty opinions, nobel peace prize recipient Nelson Mandela legacy, South Africa beloved leader, apartheid

Mandela cast a vote for the first time in his life in South Africa’s 1994 election. Photo by Paul Weinberg

Barbara B. Brown (GRS’71,’79), director of the Outreach Program, African Studies Center

Today, Nelson Mandela is revered as a saintly man who brought South Africa to freedom. But years ago, such a view was not widely shared in the United States. For starters, most people had never heard of him. From 1963 until 1990, he was in prison for treason. Many other Americans, including political and educational leaders, distrusted him as too “radical,” a man who consorted with communists and was prepared to take up arms, if necessary, for freedom. When he was freed from 27 years in prison, the acting president of BU lambasted the superintendent of the Chelsea schools for encouraging students to look to Mandela as a role model. Mandela, he said, did not serve freedom, but rather “has thrown in his lot with killers.” In 1988, President Reagan labeled Mandela’s political party “one of the world’s most notorious terrorist groups.” Six years later, that group, the African National Congress, easily won South Africa’s first free election and installed its leader, Nelson Mandela, as president. The world cheered, including those who had earlier and shortsightedly denigrated the ANC and Mandela.

Happily, the world stopped fearing him and came to recognize his greatness. Against all odds, he was able to broker a hotly disputed end to apartheid. He sacrificed his personal life, because he believed that a world of human equality and dignity is possible. He did it all with grace, with firmness, and with his broad, handsome, smile. Thank you, Madiba.

Susan Griffin, CAS senior lecturer, romance studies

One of my abiding memories of Nelson Mandela from when I still lived in South Africa is that he was never too busy or too important for us little people. I volunteered for an organization back in the early 1990s, and we organized home and school exchanges between high school students of different races. This was at a time when both groups still knew very little about one another, and Soweto was considered a very dangerous place amongst most South African whites. Four of our students—two black and two white high school students—decided to stop by Nelson Mandela’s house in Soweto only a few weeks after his release from prison. They never dreamed that he would take the time to speak with them.

Boston University BU, faculty opinions, nobel peace prize recipient Nelson Mandela legacy, South Africa beloved leader, apartheid

Mandela met with His Holiness the Dalai Lama in South Africa in August 1996. Photo by Obed Zilwa

Kenneth Elmore (SED’87), Dean of Students

Nelson Mandela was the shining example of grace and dignity on this earth, with politics that tore at the limits of nonviolence within a surreal, dystopian society. He awakened my intellectual fire and later conquered a world.

His words, work, and persistence insisted that I be conscious. He was my Sengbe Pieh, Harriet Tubman, Ella Baker, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Angela Davis. He made me learn of front lines and about places I rarely considered—Angola, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Zambia, and Mozambique.

I am so glad I got to be present with him—a quick moment from within a crowd. I felt my heart banging and I cried. I’ll cry again.

Long live his spirit that gave me the first movement in which I felt I was an active participant. It pleases me that I will have deep memories of the time we lived on this earth together. Peace to Nelson Mandela.

Carl Hobert, School of Education lecturer and founder and executive director of the nonprofit Axis of Hope Center for International Conflict Management and Prevention

Mandela, spelled another way, is “Lead Man,” and this he was, is, and will be for millions of people in our shrinking world, now and for generations to come. During his 27 years of incarceration, he became known for his profound integrity and sacrifice on behalf of others. In his roles as former president, father, grandfather, and protector of others, and even when in poor health, he has continued to believe in serving and protecting others, forever, and he has done so with an eternal smile. For generations of children who will follow in his footsteps, he will be a visionary freedom fighter who knew how to inspire others as the humble leader of his cause. Just as so many millions believed for countless years, we must now declare: “Free Mandela.”

Dexter L. McCoy (COM’14), president, BU Student Government

The impact of Nelson Mandela’s life reaches far and wide. Before ascending to the office of president of South Africa, Mandela stood by his convictions, and after becoming president he still held true to them. His legacy will always be one of strength, courage, and a genuine love for the good of people. When faced with adversity, Mandela has taught the world to press on and follow their moral compass.


8 Comments on Remembering Nelson Mandela

  • Michael Zank on 12.06.2013 at 8:50 am

    We love you, Mandela!

  • km on 12.06.2013 at 9:43 am

    Nelson Mandela, your beautiful spirit lives on. Today I remember the euphoric day in June 1990 when you visited the Boston Esplanade. Thank you for your strength and leadership. Free Mandela!

  • SS on 12.06.2013 at 11:47 am

    Thank you Mandela for your worldly sacrifices and for your persevering faith in God and justice

  • Jon Westling on 12.06.2013 at 12:47 pm

    “Nelson Mandela is not someone who should be held up as an heroic example of patient commitment to a good cause.” http://www.nytimes.com/1990/02/22/us/boston-clash-on-mandela.html

  • James E. Post, Professor in Management on 12.06.2013 at 4:16 pm

    In the late 1970s, the board of trustees agreed to the creation of “Trustee Investment Advisory Committee” composed of faculty, students, members of the BU administration, including the treasurer, and several trustees who were members of the board’s Investment Committee. The late Dexter Dodge, a prominent Boston investment banker, was among the BU trustees who served on the committee, along with Paul Deats, a well-known member of the School of Theology faculty who was a “giant” among church-based activists.

    I was the junior faculty member on that committee, whose responsibilities were remarkably similar to the advisory role and responsibility of the recently announced committee that will advise President Brown on the social impact of the university’s endowment.

    During the 1980s, the involvement of US companies in South Africa was the most contentious and difficult issue for the committee and the University’s trustees. Many voices argued that churches, universities, pension funds and other institutions ought not to invest in banks or companies that supported the apartheid system in SA. But others worried that a divestment policy would politicize the endowment, making it subject to political decisions rather than economic investment decisions. But, of course, this was exactly the purpose of the committee then, as it is today.

    Build awareness, engage the issues, discern where the university could make a difference, and define where, as a matter of moral principle, it could not go. Above all, follow the maxim: Do no harm.

    Nelson Mandela’s “long walk toward freedom” reached from South Africa to the Charles River campus and to the Bay State Road conference room where the committee met. The committee unanimously agreed to stop investing in banks that did business directly with the apartheid government and to support shareholder calls for other companies to commit to the famous Sullivan Principles which were designed to recognize the dignity of each person and to break down apartheid barriers. It was a long walk, but consciousness was raised, actions were taken, and a serious conversation took place at all levels about the responsibility of investors, businesses, churches and other institutions in the face of enormous injustice.

    Boston University played a small part in Nelson Mandela’s fight for justice, as it has so often played a role in other social causes and movements. For nearly 175 years, our university community has included people of conscience who were not –and could not– be content to ignore the plight of others. Each generation has learned the price of injustice and, as in the 1980s, stepped up to the challenge of human and institutional responsibility. The results have often been imperfect, but still they have helped to remove giant barriers to human dignity and justice. Do what you can, even in the toughest circumstances, and it will help pave the way toward a better road, a better way.

  • James Iffland on 12.06.2013 at 8:38 pm

    Many thanks to Professor Post for his historical perspective on the relationship between Nelson Mandela and BU. It would be useful for him to complete his narrative and inform the BU community whether the standards recommended by the committee on which he served were ever adopted by the BU Board of Trustees during the 1980’s. He gives the impression that they were, indeed, adopted at some point. This doesn’t match my memory of those years, when I was serving on the BU Faculty Council. Attempts to honor Nelson Mandela by the Faculty Council were rejected by the BU central administration. BU ended up giving an honorary degree to Gathsha Buthelezi, head of the so-called Inkatha Freedom Party, the arch-rivals of the African National Congress of which Mandela was a member. Buthelezi later turned out to have been collaborating with the South African apartheid government. Student activist groups fighting for divestment from companies doing business in South Africa were frequently harassed by the BU police. The Faculty Council set up a group of monitors to observe the behavior of BU police when present at student protests surrounding the issue of South Africa. I only bring this up to point out that there is another whole side of the BU/Mandela story which is not covered by Professor Post’s otherwise valuable remembrance of those years. Needless to say, having an anti-Mandela administration at an institution from which Martin Luther King graduated felt a bit odd at the time. BU has come a long way since those unfortunate days, and those of us who were around back then are deeply grateful for the change.

  • سيو on 12.09.2013 at 8:51 am

    We love you, Mandela and this was really big lose not just for africa , we all in this world lost a big man. RIP

  • Gage on 03.31.2015 at 2:12 pm

    Nelson Mandela was the best leader I know. ✊

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