Today, we remember the life of an exemplary world leader, educator and human rights champion, Nelson Mandela, who passed away at age 95. On behalf of the Howard University community, I extend sincere condolences to the Mandela family and the people of South Africa.
In leading his nation away from the blight of apartheid, President Mandela taught the world a master class in forbearance and forgiveness, making it possible for South Africa to shed its pariah status and assume a place of leadership in international affairs. Mandela entered the world on July 18, 1918 in Transkei, South Africa. His father, a tribal chief, gave him the name “Rolihalah,” which translates to “troublemaker.” Wanting him to have the formal education that she did not have, Mandela’s mother sent him to a local Methodist school, when he was seven. There, his teacher gave him the English forename of “Nelson.”
After the death of his father, Mandela went to live with the leader of the Thembu people, who groomed him for leadership by sending him to the best schools and allowing him to sit-in on council meetings. This proximity to men in authority was Mandela’s first glimpse of leadership in action, and it piqued his interest.
In 1939, Mandela enrolled at the University College of Fort Hare, the only residential center of higher learning for Blacks in South Africa at the time. He was interested in a wide array of topics, including English, African history, anthropology and politics. He played sports and later became a member of the Students Christian Association and taught Bible classes. It was also here that Mandela was involved in one of his first acts of civil disobedience — a boycott orchestrated by the Students Representative Council to protest the quality of food offered at the university. The university asked him to leave because of his involvement in the boycott.
When he moved to Johannesburg, Mandela for the first time came face to face with the brutal, race-based divisions that defined life in South Africa. Familiar with seeing Blacks in positions of power and authority in his rural homeland, Mandela was shocked at the treatment of urban Blacks, ensnared in the harsh reality of an apartheid system which denied them the right to vote, to travel without permission or to own property.
He began attending meetings of the African National Congress (ANC), an organization that aimed to establish a non-racial democratic government in South Africa. In 1942, Mandela joined the ANC as an activist and traveled throughout South Africa promoting the party’s “Defiance of Unjust Laws” initiative. For 20 years, he directed peaceful, nonviolent acts of defiance against the South African government and its racist policies. He worked fearlessly and tirelessly, suffering beatings and imprisonment.
In 1963, Mandela and 10 others were sentenced to life in prison for their leadership roles in the ANC. Not one to let his situation dictate his aspirations, Mandela earned a Bachelor of Law degree in prison through the University of London. Some of Mandela’s most difficult challenges as a leader came while he was in prison. He faced harsh, primitive conditions on Robben Island, where he spent two-thirds of his 27 years as a prisoner.
Using guile, charm, and force of will, he established himself as leader of the prisoners and an arbiter in their campaigns to improve living conditions. Despite severe restrictions on his ability to communicate with outsiders, Mandela maintained his standing as head of the ANC, serving as the face of the organization and the force that united the organization. Furthermore, Mandela provided an appealing rallying point for the world at large as the campaign against apartheid went global.
Following years of worldwide African liberation and free Mandela activities, Mandela was released from prison on February 11, 1990. During the period immediately before and after his release, talks with the South African government, which much of the world had come to view as a diplomatic outcast because of its racist policies, took on extra urgency. The ANC organized and fielded candidates for the nation’s first democratic, multi-racial elections. Four years after leaving prison, Mandela was inaugurated as the country’s first Black president. A delegation of Howard University faculty and students served as an official United Nations’ South African election observer team. As president, Mandela ushered in a wave of economic and social changes that began the transformation of his country’s apartheid regime into a democratic system. For his role to dismantling apartheid, Mandela, along with then-President F.W. de Klerk, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993.
Mandela’s struggle for the liberation of his people and for justice brought him to Howard University, where the University’s motto of “truth and service” echoed in his heart. In October 7, 1994, Howard conferred on Mandela an honorary Doctor of Laws degree. The following year, former Howard University President H. Patrick Swygert led a delegation of Howard faculty, administrators and trustees to South Africa to explore the potential for collaborative projects with government agencies, universities and other institutions. Upon returning from that visit, members of the Howard faculty organized the Howard University Republic of South Africa Project (HURSAP), which in turn led to the organization of South African Research Archival Project (SARAP), which is a documentation project designed to identify, locate, inventory and disseminate oral and visual materials pertaining to South Africa’s long struggle for freedom and human rights.
At Howard, we have groups, programs and trips inspired by Mandela’s motto “Be the change you want to see in the world.” Our School of Social Work continues to expand its work in South Africa, most recently joining forces with its South African counterparts on Human Rights Day in Cape Town during the School of Social Work’s 2010 Spring Break Service-Learning project. Howard also continues to offer its students the opportunity to explore the social and economic transformation of South Africa through a study abroad program at the University of Western Cape.
President Mandela is responsible for inspiring many of the national and world leaders we celebrate today, including the first African-American President of the United States Barack Obama, former U.S. President Bill Clinton, who referred to Mandela as a “ferociously loyal friend” from whom he learned the importance of forgiveness; Oprah Winfrey, whose Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa was inspired by Mandela; and Howard’s son U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young who assigned high priority to Mandela’s freedom and South African liberation.
On my maiden visit to South Africa this year, I had the honor of meeting with President Zuma and visiting the Union Building in Pretoria. The building that once convened an apartheid regime now housed administrations of three black South African Presidents. You can feel the legacy of this great man everywhere you travel in the country and around the world. It was a transformative experience for me indeed. In sum, Nelson Mandela is one of the great moral and political leaders of our time. His example will live forever within the Howard University community and around the world.
Wayne A.I Frederick