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Home » Cambridge & Harvard » Convocation: Neil L. Rudenstine

Convocation: Neil L. Rudenstine

Photo by Kris Snibbe - Harvard News Office

Neil L. Rudenstine
Photo by Kris Snibbe – Harvard News Office


The President of Harvard University reads the Citation,






In the name of the society of scholars here assembled, I declare that our honored guest is entitled to all the rights and privileges pertaining to his degree, and that his name shall be borne forever on Harvard’s roll of honorary members.

Nelson Mandela’s remarkable life has shaped, in absolutely decisive ways, the course of his country’s history since the early decades of our century.

Born eighty years ago into a royal lineage in South Africa’s Eastern Cape, he went to live as a boy in the household of the regents of his own Thembu people. He has often said how much he learned about leadership from those early years. He learned, he has said, that “a leader . . . is like a shepherd. He stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble go on ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realizing that all along they are being directed from behind.” President Mandela is a democrat who has learned from a king.

He also took from his background a deep sense of his own dignity, and the dignity of all men and women: a conviction that led him to suspend his university studies because of a dispute about the rights of students; that drew him to his work as a lawyer; that guided him to his eventual decision to join the African National Congress.

As a founder of the ANC’s Youth League, Mr. Mandela was in the forefront of the struggle against the system that came to be known as apartheid: what he called, simply, “a struggle for the right to live.” He was often banned from public appearances, and, after his acquittal of treason charges in 1961, he went underground.

Captured and then imprisoned in 1962, he was in 1964 sentenced to life imprisonment without possibility of parole. At trial, he did not deny his actions against the government. Instead, he argued that apartheid had “imposed a state of outlawry” on him. “All lawful modes of expressing opposition,” he said, “had been closed by legislation, and we were placed in a position in which we had either to accept a permanent state of inferiority or defy the government . . . We believed that South Africa belonged to all the people who lived in it,” he told the court, “and not to one group, be it black or white.”

Despite the extraordinary suffering to which he and his fellow prisoners were subjected, Nelson Mandela never turned away from the vision of a non-racial South Africa. And so it was that, as his country’s most famous political prisoner, he was willing to engage in dialogue with the National Party government that still held him in bondage. A decade of dialogue began in prison, continued after his release, and ended with the historic agreement with President de Klerk that led, of course, to South Africa’s first democratic constitution and his own inauguration as the first president of a democratic South Africa.

For many people around the world, one of the most enduring memories of our time is the image of Nelson Mandela emerging from prison, with a vigor in his step that belied his years of suffering, “free at last.” We knew that we were watching not simply one man walking out of bondage, but the emancipation of an entire nation.

As his country’s first president, he has never sought to harm those who had previously injured him. He was imprisoned and abused, but he has not sought to punish his abusers. He has always looked forward toward justice, never backward for revenge. He has taught us all that there is “no easy walk to freedom,” but he has also shown that, however hard, that walk is one of the only walks worth taking. In doing so he has reinvigorated the democratic ideal for all of us.

It is my very great pleasure and honor to welcome to the podium the President of the Republic of South Africa, His Excellency Nelson Mandela.

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Categories: Cambridge & Harvard, Religion & Culture, Social Reform