Remembering Nelson Mandela

Thursday marked the passing of Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s former pres­i­dent who spent 27 years in prison and emerged to lead the country out of decades of apartheid. His wisdom, work, and legacy touched many of the North­eastern community. Here, faculty mem­bers share their mem­o­ries and thoughts about Man­dela, also known as Madiba.

Mar­garet Burnham  – Pro­fessor of  law, was appointed by Nelson Man­dela to serve on an inter­na­tional human rights commission

From Man­dela, Amer­i­cans grasped the essence of rad­ical lead­er­ship: the neces­sity to stand one’s ground—as when he refused to be released from prison; the duty to nego­tiate with one’s enemy—as when he met with “the Boers;” the perils and oppor­tu­ni­ties of gov­er­nance; the hard­ships of per­sonal depri­va­tion and the virtues of self-​​discipline, suf­fering, and for­give­ness; the need to have con­fi­dence in one­self and, most impor­tantly, in the ulti­mate wisdom of the dis­pos­sessed, as honed by dia­logue, account­ability, and contestation. Without his example, America would be a dif­ferent place today.

Roger Abrams  – Pro­fessor of law, author of  Playing Tough: The World of Pol­i­tics and Sport

Most people know about Mandela’s bril­liant use of South Africa’s vic­tory in the Rugby World Cup as a polit­ical tour de force. South Africa’s national rugby team, the Springboks, was beloved by the Afrikaner minority, but Man­dela used the “One team, One nation” slogan to unify the country he led as president.

Two other major uses of sport by Man­dela and the ANC are also note­worthy. Polit­ical pris­oners on Rob­bins Island orga­nized a soccer league and, in this way, honed orga­ni­za­tion skills that would prove vital when these men even­tu­ally became offi­cials in the Man­dela gov­ern­ment. In addi­tion, the ANC and its allies orga­nized a world­wide boy­cott of South African sports teams, a set of pow­erful sanc­tions that even banned the South Africans from the Olympics.

Sports is a vital lever of polit­ical power, some­thing Man­dela appre­ci­ated more than any other politi­cian of our time.

Dennis Shaugh­nessy   – Exec­u­tive pro­fessor of entre­pre­neur­ship and inno­va­tion, founder and exec­u­tive director of the Social Enter­prise Insti­tute , which leads unique field research pro­grams in the Dominican Republic, South Africa, and Nicaragua

For each of the past five years, during our SEI field study visits to South Africa, we have met with Madiba’s cell­mate, Ahmed Kathrada, and trav­elled to Robben Island with him to visit Madiba’s cell. For Dr. Kathrada, his most common com­ment about Madiba is that he fought against dis­crim­i­na­tion of any kind, but saw the next great battle for both social and eco­nomic justice. Blacks in South Africa are free, and no longer dis­crim­i­nated against by those in power, but they remain largely in poverty and without the eco­nomic oppor­tu­nity that must follow freedom in order for true jus­tice to be achieved.

This summer, we also met with Arch­bishop Desmond Tutu. He artic­u­lated the ideals of social jus­tice and equal oppor­tu­nity that he and Man­dela dreamed of for years. With their wisdom in our minds, it’s our job to find inno­v­a­tive ways to create sus­tain­able, pro­duc­tive, and mean­ingful work for everyone who seeks it. At the end of our visit, the Arch­bishop shared the words of Man­dela with us: “The older I get, the more con­vinced I am that social equality is the one nec­es­sary con­di­tion for all human happiness.

Richard O’Bryant  – Assis­tant pro­fessor of polit­ical science, director of the John D. O’Bryant African-​​American Institute

Nelson Man­dela was the embod­i­ment of all that I think we hope to and like to see in a leader. He impacted me by his example of being strong in his deter­mi­na­tion to change a system that work so hard against him and his people. He was selfless, strong, com­mitted, prin­ci­pled, and transformative. His life, his work and his ser­vant style of lead­er­ship has meant so much to so many. I truly hope that the world remem­bers him among the greatest leaders the world has ever had.

Gor­dana Rabren­ovic  – Asso­ciate pro­fessor of soci­ology and education

The influ­ence of Nelson Man­dela in cham­pi­oning and prac­ticing for­give­ness is enormous. He taught us that, it is hard for indi­vid­uals and for soci­eties to move on, if they are not able to forgive. Forgiveness is based on our ability to acknowl­edge that people can be redeemed. At the same time for­give­ness does not mean that we forget atroc­i­ties that are com­mitted during a con­flict. Part of the healing process also means holding cul­pable actors account­able for their actions during the conflict. As the first pres­i­dent of the new South Africa, Nelson Man­dela insisted on building a country based on social jus­tice, inclusion, and for­give­ness. This is a legacy that all peo­ples can build upon for a peaceful future.

Brook Baker   – Pro­fessor of law, has taught and con­sulted in South African law schools and clinics since 1997

I will remember Nelson Man­dela as a healer of body and soul. I was in South Africa for six months in 1997 while the Truth and Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion hear­ings were being held. Many of them were broad­cast on TV, and I had oppor­tu­ni­ties to talk with a TRC lead inves­ti­gator and Commissioner. The sto­ries told by the vic­tims of apartheid were wrenching.Although all the hor­rific psy­chic wounds were by no means healed, Mandela’s lead­er­ship is estab­lishing the TRC was instru­mental in laying the ground­work for par­tially healing of the national spirit. By 1997, Nelson Man­dela had never pub­licly dis­cussed the emerging HIV/​AIDS crisis, even though nearly 5 mil­lion South Africans were infected at that time. However, after leaving the presidency, Mandela was instru­mental in over­coming the HIV denialism in the ANC. In 2002, he vis­ited the lead­er­ship of the Treat­ment Action Cam­paign and asked them what needed to be done to fight the scourge of AIDS. Mandela helped launched the public sector HIV/​AIDS treat­ment plan that has grown from zero people on treat­ment in 2003 to nearly 2.5 mil­lion people on treat­ment today.

Former South African President Nelson Mandela received an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from Northeastern University in absentia in May of 1988, while serving his 27-year jail sentence. The degree is currently on display in the Nelson Mandela National Museum in Soweto, South Africa. Photo courtesy of Robert Gittens, vice president for public affairs.