a digital library of Unitarian Universalist biographies, history, books, and media

Donate to Harvard Square Library

Sign Up for Updates
Home » Cambridge & Harvard » Students Speak Out: Born Into Racism, Mandela Overcomes

Students Speak Out: Born Into Racism, Mandela Overcomes

Photo by Melissa K. Crocker - Harvard Crimson

Photo by Melissa K. Crocker – Harvard Crimson

By Jenny E. Heller
Crimson Staff Writer

There was nothing unusual about the small ferry as it chugged across the Cape Town harbor and dropped anchor at Robben Island.

Nothing unusual until the gang plank stretched across the water and out stepped a black prisoner of the elite, white regime, a prisoner whose name would become synonymous with the struggle for equality and dignity for blacks and whites in South Afirica.

Nelson R. Mandela, eyes at once penetrating and steady, told the guards he refused to jog from the harbor to the prison gates like the other prisoners.

He had been sentenced to five years at Robben prison for acting against the injustice of South Africa’s apartheid system and would eventually spend 27 years behind bars.

The guard, in response, unflinchingly threatened Mandela with death.

Without raising his voice, Mandela responded, “If you so much as lay a hand on me, I will take you to the highest court in the land, and, when I finish with you, you will be poor as a church mouse.”

Mandela walked to the prison gates. He later told friends, “Any man or institution that tries to rob me of my dignity will lose.”

The words are characteristically simple and the tone characteristically firm, free of confrontation and pretension.

While Harvard is far from the first institution to honor Mandela, those who know the South African president say he will be remembered for his grandfatherly face, gentle humor and wide smile rather than for his many awards or specific government policies.

Mandela, the man, the first democratically elected president of an embattled nation, has become a symbol of our era—a symbol of triumph and reconciliation after decades of division and oppression.

He was a victim of unjust punishment, an authority figure with whom the public can empathize. He leads by example, not by rhetoric. He is a man educated by the ruling elite who has always identified with the underprivileged.

On his 80th birthday last July, leaders and citizens from around the world sent thousands of letters to Mandela praising his sense of self-confidence that they say restored a sense of dignity to a formerly divided nation.

When he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993, typically Mandela downplayed his own role in defining the civil rights struggle of his time.

“We stand here today as nothing more than a representative of the millions of our people who dared to rise up against a social system whose very essence is war, violence, racism, oppression, repression and the impoverishment of an entire people,” Mandela said.

“We live with the hope that as she battles to remake herself, South Africa will be like a microcosm of the new world that is striving to be born,” he added.

But some would say that while Mandela has the strength to birth a nation, he lacks the creativity and flexibility to nurse it as it grows. In South Africa he brought together the white and black communities but has failed to effectively help his nation’s economy thrive as a post-apartheid nation.

British Broadcasting Company (BBC) commentator Brian Walden said Mandela, “perhaps the most generally admired figure of our age, falls short of the giants of the past.”

To this, Mandela replied with characteristic humor, “It helps to make you human.”

The Calm in the Eye of the Hurricane

Perhaps the serenity that emanates from Mandela and entrances the world derives from his earliest companions, the wide-eyed, lumbering cattle of the fields.

Born in 1918, six years after the African National Congress (ANC) was founded to put leadership back in the hands of the Africans, Mandela grew up in rural South Africa in the soft, rolling hills and green valleys of the Transkei.

The other members of Mandela’s village, where his father was the chief, approved by the British government, treated him with respect, bowing to him in the streets and addressing him in accordance with his royal status.

But outside the community he suffered from discrimination by Afrikaner whites, as well as the British Boer settlers.

“The education I received was a British education, in which British ideas, British culture, British institutions were automatically assumed to be superior,” Mandela explains in his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom. “There was no such thing as African culture.”

Throughout his career he would face imprisonment, torture and ridicule but he never expressed a desire for revenge.

“One of his greatest qualities is his serenity, the sense of dignity under incredible turmoil and strife,” says Atlanta Mayor Bill Campbell, who has worked with Mandela. “During all his years of captivity, they never broke his spirit.”

Many credit his gentle strength with encouraging the reconciliation between the black and white communities that led to the abolition of apartheid.

Bestowed by his father with the name Rolihlahla, meaning “troublemaker,” Mandela began struggling against the white regime at an early age. He started non-violent student protests at the Missionary College of Fort Hare that resulted in his expulsion in 1940.

After running away from an arranged marriage at home and completing his B.A. in 1941 by correspondence through the University of South Africa, Mandela entered the law profession, only to realize that his prospects as a black lawyer were limited under apartheid.

Unlike those before him who had fought back vindictively and sporatically, Mandela planned a methodical strategy for combating the injustice he saw around him, a strategy of societal education and leadership by personal strength.

“Only mass education, Mr. Sidelsky [one of the lawyers in the law firm] used to say, would free my people, arguing that an educated man could not be oppressed because he could think for himself,” Mandela recalled in his autobiography.

Those around him recognized his vision and looked to him as a leader.

“He has faith in ideas and faith in a vision no matter what the consequences,” said Robert Z. Lawrence, Williams professor of international trade and investment. “He is an immense moral authority.”

Mandela joined the Youth League of the ANC in 1944, rising in the ranks to National President of the Youth League in 1950.

He was then arrested under the Suppression of Communism Amendment Act and sentenced to nine months in prison. The government lashed out, initiating a treason trial against its main opponents, which after five years in 1961 ended in acquittal of Mandela and the other 155 who were accused.

The government banned the ANC, and Mandela went underground, most frequently disguised as a chauffeur, chef or garden boy. Continuing his peaceful resistance, he traveled abroad to gather support for the civil rights cause.

“One has to plan every action, however small and seemingly insignificant. Nothing is innocent. Everything is questioned,” Mandela writes of his experience underground. “I became a creature of the night.”

When he returned, he was sentenced to prison for his continued involvement in the ANC—at first for five years and later for life.

Like Martin Luther King Jr., another civil rights leader with whom Mandela often identifies himself, he was prepared to give his life as an example for the cause. He never rebelled against his fate, accepting prison as a necessary price to fight for what he believed in.

“This conferred a new status of moral dignity on his leadership,” says an article on Time‘s 100 leaders and revolutionaries of the century. “His major response to the indignities of the prison was a creative denial of victimhood, expressed most remarkably by a system of self-education, which earned the prison the appellation of ‘Island University.’”

From prison, Mandela began negotiations with the government to end apartheid and ensure his release from prison.

By Feb. 1990, he was free. While King died in the midst of the American civil rights struggle, Mandela became a beacon of hope that change was on its way.

A Legacy of Liberation

Like Winston Churchill and George Washington, who received the Harvard honorary degree before him, Mandela conferred his own personality on a nation, liberating with the force of personality and will.

“They defined their age,” says Robert H. Bates, Eaton professor of the science of government, and acting chair of the African Studies committee. “All of them were liberators. They fought against tyranny.”

Churchill single-handedly prevented Hitler from gaining control of Europe. Washington won a war to free a colony and then served as its first leader.

And Mandela changed the face of an entire nation, according to British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

“South Africa is a country unrecognizable from 10 years ago,” he wrote Mandela in a birthday note. “Few would have dared then to predict the speed of transformation from apartheid to government based on democratic principles.”

Blair names Mandela as the personality behind the change. “The steps that are being taken towards an equitable and open society are a direct reflection of your personal conviction that South Africa should never again experience oppression of one by another.”

Mandela resisted showing any feelings of hatred for the white ruling classes that had thrown him in prison.

“He came out as committed and as focused as he went in,” Bates says.

Aware of the power of cultural symbols, Mandela used daily events to change South Africa.

In South Africa, the black classes have traditionally watched soccer games, and the Afrikaners are avid fans of rugby.

At a 1994 World Cup match, Mandela donned a rugby shirt, communicating a message of peaceful tolerance to his people.

“Everyone feels that he is a leader,” Bates says. “There’s something there: his ability to understand people and locate common ground with people.”

By ending apartheid without violence, Bates says, Mandela accomplished what many saw as impossible.

“He is one of the great heroes of the 20th century,” Campbell says.

A Policy of People

Photo by Sarah E. Henrickson - Harvard Crimson

Photo by Sarah E. Henrickson – Harvard Crimson

In his autobiography, Mandela wrote that the secret to success as a leader is understanding those you represent. Gathered around the Great Place in his African village, Mandela watched and listened, learning from the regent skills that would one day bring him fame.

“I always remember the regent’s axiom: ‘A leader,’ he said, ‘is like a shepherd. He stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble go out ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realizing all along that they are being directed from behind.’”

In this way, Mandela always puts the people first, never setting a clear economic agenda for his presidency because he says he wanted the flexibility to do what was best for the children and others in the society.

“His greatness, I think, lies in his humility, says Shiela Sisulu, consul general of South Africa in New York. “I think it’s not even conscious. He is a humble servant of the people.”

After his election to the presidency in April 1994, Mandela established a commission to examine education in South Africa and to ensure that people of all races received equal opportunities.

“He opened hospitals to the poor and made schooling more accesssible,” Sisulu says.

He established the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund, emphasizing his commitment to their welfare.

“This reward will not be measured in money….It will and must be measured by the happiness and welfare of the children, at once the most vulnerable citizens in any society and the greatest of our treasures,” Mandela writes.

He also pursued an alliance with the United States. Under Mandela’s presidency, Bill Clinton became the first American president to visit South Africa.

“You will be able to confirm that relations between our countries are growing by the day,” Mandela writes. “These relations make it possible for us to create more resources to meet our people’s basic needs: jobs, skills and schooling, a roof over their heads, health care.

Man or Myth?

While Mandela may have given the black community in South Africa its freedom, his government has failed to improve the lives of many.

The job market remains in a slump. The wealth is still concentrated in the upper, white classes.

His famous Reconstruction and Development program to give housing to black citizens has not been as successful as hoped.

“He has to balance retaining the confidence of those who own capital and making good on issues and equality,” Bates says.

Lawrence blames the problems on Mandela’s commitment to social policy over the economy.

“I don’t think that he himself has put a strong emphasis on radical and reform economic policy,” Lawrence says.

But Lawrence and Bates warn against strong criticism of Mandela and agree that the task of changing South Africa is not easy.

“South Africa has not created new jobs in 30 years. He inherited a difficult system,” says Robert I. Rotberg, research associate at the Harvard International Institute of Development.

In December 1997, Mandela told his country that South Africa still has many reforms to make but pledged his commitment to democracy and equality.

“If these first three years of freedom meant the outpouring of national pride in the prowess of our sporting teams, in our new constitution and more, then this past year has been one in which slowly but surely we are all coming to better appreciate the difficulties of change, as well as the sweat and toil required to improve our lives and forge our unity as a nation,” Mandela said in his most recent New Year’s address to the nation.

Mandela has brought incredible strength to the small African nation, but, as he says, he is only human and makes his share of mistakes. Perhaps, say his people, this is what makes him a great leader.

“He has such stature,” says Sisulu, whose father worked on the ANC with Mandela. “He is world renowned and world respected, and yet at a human level he is so human. You are constantly at two levels, in awe of the man, the leader, and yet made to feel so taken seriously and affirmed at his very basic level.”

Series Navigation<< Students Speak Out: Honorary Degree Makes HistoryStudents Speak Out: A Conflicted Relationship >>
Categories: Cambridge & Harvard, Religion & Culture, Social Reform