Yale remembers Nelson Mandela (1918-2013)

Margaret H. Marshall, senior trustee and a native South African who fought against apartheid, offers a tribute to the man who led his nation to a new era of equality. Also: reflections by other Yale affiliates.

Margaret H. Marshall ’76 J.D., senior fellow of the Yale Corporation

Margaret H. Marshall was born in South Africa in 1944. As an undergraduate student at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, she was a leader of the National Union of South African Students, an anti-apartheid organization.

Nelson Mandela was a leader of enormous political skill, immense moral courage, and an infinite capacity to see beyond the hatred that engulfed him for most of his life. I was a young university student in South Africa when he was sentenced to prison — forever, we all thought at the time. It was an honor, a privilege, to be with him decades later when he emerged to lead his country, so riven by racial hatred, to a new democracy.

He taught the world that courage with grace, tenacity with strength, patience and determination can move mountains. President Obama reminded us in his memorial tribute that when he was sentenced to life imprisonment, Mandela told the judge that he cherished the “ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

The Yale African Student Association (YASA) sponsored a day of “communal affection” for South African leader Nelson Mandela. As part of the celebration of Mandela’s life, YASA had a table in the Commons rotunda, where passers-by were given red balloons — historically a symbol of activism in many circles — to carry during their travels around campus. Among those who stopped by were (from left) Yale Corporation member Catharine Hill; Kimberly Goff-Crews, university secretary and vice president for student life; and senior trustee Margaret H. Marshall. The three are shown talking to YASA members (from left) Ziggy Yeni ’14, Edwina Kisanga ’16, and Ameze Belo-Osagie ’16. (Photo by Michael Marsland)

Mandela did indeed live to achieve that ideal. He changed the lives of generations of South Africans, including my own, and his influence spread far beyond South Africa¹s boundaries: He moved the world, to invoke Robert Kennedy’s powerful phrase.

President Peter Salovey

Speaking at the Yale vigil in honor of Nelson Mandela on Dec. 8

The world has lost a great man. Nelson Mandela was an inspiration — not only to his fellow citizens in South Africa but to us and so many others as well. With a wisdom beyond  understanding, he guided a peaceful transition to democracy for his people. Where others have resorted to force, he resorted to reconciliation. Not only did he prepare a table for his enemies; he also invited them to sit down and talk. He cleared a way through decades of hatred, giving the oppressed a voice, letting truth out into the open, building freedom on a foundation of forgiveness. Yes, we have lost a great man. But he is not truly lost if each one of us carries a bit of his spirit on in the world, if we keep the light of his life alive. He has left us a great legacy; our task now is to learn from the way he lived so that we can carry on the work of peace-making in a world that is desperately in need of truth and reconciliation. May it be so. 

Dorothy Woodson, curator of the African Collection at Yale University Library

Woodson, who came to Yale in 2000, met Mandela several times while working in the Presidential offices in 1996.

While a Fulbright Fellow in South Africa in 1994, my goal was to sort through and archive the voluminous boxes of prisoners’ archives from Robben Island, where Mandela and so many other political prisoners spent many difficult years — and in some cases (though not his) decades.

What a heady task this was. Reading messages written on little pieces of toilet paper that the members of the African National Congress “High Command” wrote to each other, revealed rich insights into the daily lives of this most unusual gathering of men. Much has been said about the harsh conditions the prisoners endured in the early years on the island. As some conditions improved over the years, the prisoners were allowed small requests, such as a few special food items they might want for the holidays. Mandela always ordered the same thing — pilchards (sardines) and orange crush, a soft drink.

His leadership, even under prison conditions and restrictions, was clearly evident as he encouraged his colleagues to pursue further education in the form of correspondence courses and  guided their political education by the reading of scholarly works. “Robben Island University” as it was called, created a new cadre of intellectuals subscribing to Mandela’s goal of creating a non-racial South Africa.

Mandela was removed from Robben Island in 1982 and sent to the infamous Pollsmoor Prison in Cape Town and then later to the Victor Verster Prison in Paarl where he lived a rather free life in a large house with all the amenities, while at the same time being under house arrest. During this period, he and his guard would take Sunday drives throughout the area, often along the coast in Cape Town. Because he had been banned for so many decades, the public had no idea what he looked like, so he was able to move about without drawing attention.

When Mandela was released in February of 1990, I was living and working at the University of Swaziland. The entire campus was riveted to the very few television sets on campus to witness his historic appearance at the Cape Town City Hall, where many gasped at the white haired man before them, not having seen a photo of him since 1964.

During the long years of separation from his family and countrymen, Mandela kept a copy of his favorite poem, “Invictus”by William Ernest Hensley, in his jail cell. He drew hope and inspiration from the final lines of the poem:

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.”

Sisonke Msimang, 2012 Yale World Fellow
Inscription on the wall of Hewitt Quadrangle near the Beinecke Rare Book Library.

Msimang is a writer and columnist who focuses on race, class and gender. The following is an excerpt from her article “Mandela: The man who taught me how to lead” in the Mail & Guardian.

Black people’s struggles against colonialism, slavery and racism have always required us to be agile, to change tactics depending on the situation. They have also demanded of us deep and careful reflection. In a world in which action is privileged over thought, Mandela spent 40 years fighting and 27 years thinking. He emerged tougher and more resolute, but also far less inclined to move too quickly, to jump too fast.

For this, his image — temporarily at least — took a knock among those who define their battlefield as primarily focused on race and racism. But the truth is that in our haste to embrace the Madiba, who emerged from jail in 1990, we may have diminished the stature of the Mandela who went to prison in 1961; the man who condemned himself to the gallows, who started the armed wing of the ANC, and who inspired thousands of young black women and men to join the liberation struggle.

As we think about the legacy of Mandela it seems important to reflect on his contributions to black people qua black people. This is an important exercise because, today, Mandela’s Africanness seems almost incidental. He has taken on a sort of post-racial identity. He is black but his Africanness has begun to seem like a postscript. Saint Madiba has scrubbed some of the blackness off Nelson Mandela.

In reality, though, the arc of Mandela’s life is important both for the “rainbow” parts that are so popular today, and for the “terrorist” bits that even ardent black consciousness fans will recognise in their hearts. There is no question that he belongs in the canon of African leaders and thinkers engaged in the struggle for the recognition of black people’s humanity and dignity.

Though some would place him next to Martin Luther King, I would seat him next to Malcolm X and Steve Biko. Recognising, of course, that this place is at the head of the table right next to Sojourner Truth.

Read the full article: http://mg.co.za/article/2013-07-05-00-mandela-the-man-who-taught-me-how-to-lead

Mark Gevisser ‘87, South African author and journalist

The power of [Nelson Mandela’s] story is not only redemptive, but regenerative too. Just as apartheid became a global semaphore for evil, so too did Mandela come to symbolize not just the power of goodness, but — in in an increasingly malevolent world — the impulse to do good. Listen, for example, to a comment his friend Bill Clinton made about the roots of Mandela’s sanctity: “Mandela is a very godly man because he’s the living embodiment of the importance of second chances in life: giving them and getting them, and becoming bigger through adversity.” 

Mandela got his second chance — at liberty, at leadership, even at love, with Graça Machel. Forgiveness allows both victim and perpetrator to start again, and the way that Mandela bettered himself through adversity serves as an object lesson to us all: If he can walk out of 27 years in jail without anger or the desire for retribution, we too can rise above our petty problems and disputes.

Source: http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2013/12/05/mandela-the-last-good-man.html

William Jefferson Clinton ’73 J.D.,  former president of the United States

Clinton served in the White House during the time Nelson Mandela was president of South Africa

Today the world has lost one of its most important leaders and one of its finest human beings.  And Hillary, Chelsea and I have lost a true friend.

History will remember Nelson Mandela as a champion for human dignity and freedom, for peace and reconciliation. We will remember him as a man of uncommon grace and compassion, for whom abandoning bitterness and embracing adversaries was not just a political strategy but a way of life. Our thoughts and prayers go out to Graça and his family and to the people of South Africa. All of us are living in a better world because of the life that Madiba lived. He proved that there is freedom in forgiving, that a big heart is better than a closed mind, and that life’s real victories must be shared.

Source: http://www.clintonfoundation.org/press-releases/statement-president-clinton-passing-nelson-mandela

John Kerry ‘66, U.S. secretary of state

 Madiba’s ‘long walk to freedom’ gave new meaning to courage, character, forgiveness, and human dignity. Now that his long walk has ended, the example he set for all humanity lives on. He will be remembered as a pioneer for peace.

There are some truly brave people in this world whom you meet and you’re forever changed for the experience. Nelson Mandela remains Teresa’s hero, and a person who inspired her as a young woman to march with her classmates against apartheid. We had the honor of sitting with Mandela over the Thanksgiving holidays of 2007. I was struck by how warm, open, and serene he was. I stood in his tiny cell on Robben Island, a room with barely enough space to lie down or stand up, and I learned that the glare of the white rock quarry permanently damaged his eyesight. It hit home even more just how remarkable it was that after spending 27 years locked away, after having his own vision impaired by the conditions, that this man could still see the best interests of his country and even embrace the very guards who kept him prisoner. That is the story of a man whose ability to see resided not in his eyes but in his conscience. It is hard to imagine any of us could summon such strength of character.

Nelson Mandela was a stranger to hate. He rejected recrimination in favor of reconciliation and knew the future demands we move beyond the past. He gave everything he had to heal his country and lead it back into the community of nations, including insisting on relinquishing his office and ensuring there would be a peaceful transfer of power. Today, people all around the world who yearn for democracy look to Mandela’s nation and its democratic constitution as a hopeful example of what is possible.

Teresa and I join those from around the world in honoring the life of this great man. Our deepest condolences go out to his wife, Graça, his family, all the people of South Africa and everyone who today enjoys the freedom Madiba fought for his entire life.

Source: http://www.state.gov/secretary/remarks/2013/12/218410.htm

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