Nelson Mandela is being remembered as a towering giant, the sort of hero of whom President Barack Obama said, “few of us will share space with on this Earth again.”
It is hard to say enough about the courage, wisdom, sacrifice and persistence the former freedom fighter and later South Africa’s president showed in paving the way for an end to apartheid and the birth of a new nation. Equally remarkable was his leadership in forgiving and reaching out to former adversaries without bitterness.
But to depict Mandela as superhuman or in a class by himself would be to miss the point of his life, which underscores the moral imperative on each of us, in the face of repression and injustice, to act.
His lesson is how one person can summon the will and conviction to take on a brutal system, bring others on board and keep seeking new approaches, even from a place of confinement, if one fails.
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In that vein, it’s also worth acknowledging the American activism that helped create the conditions for an end to the longest-standing system of legalized segregation in history.
While everyone denounced it, some went further, insisting we had a role to play. Rather than military action, that role was isolating South Africa diplomatically and economically, by divesting U.S. holdings, contributing to the government’s downfall. The first impetus was from black Americans reacting to the abhorrent treatment of black South Africans.
Former U.S. Rep. Ron Dellums, of California, sponsored anti-apartheid legislation in 1972 with support from members of the Congressional Black Caucus and the House Africa Subcommittee. But it would take several more tries before passage.
University students in the late 1970s began holding teach-ins and demonstrations and picketing trustee meetings to get their universities to sell their investments in South Africa. Michigan State University was the first. Four years later, Michigan’s legislature and governor agreed to divest 30 state colleges’ and universities’ funds from South Africa, but they were overturned in court.
I was covering a board of trustees meeting of the State University of New York in Albany in 1985 when a group of student activists occupied a building in protest. The board’s chairman at the time, Donald Blinken, responded angrily in an op-ed piece in the New York Times complaining that trustees — “a body of well-mannered, nonviolent citizens” — had been called fascists and murderers.
But most significant was his rebuttal of anyone favorably comparing the students’ activism to the anti-war movement. “ ‘Isn’t it wonderful,’ they say, ‘that students have again found a worthwhile issue,’ ” Blinken wrote. “But unlike the 1960s, when some students reflected concern that imminent departure for Vietnam placed them in personal danger, today’s debate places no students’ rights or life in jeopardy.”
In other words, if you weren’t affected directly, you had no reason to be sticking your nose into apartheid.
Change would have come much slower to South Africa if that view had been universal. Several other colleges and universities did divest. The University of California withdrew $3 billion of investments from South Africa, which Mandela called a significant factor in abolishing white-minority rule.
Artists and musicians, including U2, Peter Gabriel, Bruce Springsteen and Stevie Wonder, launched their own actions to get the word out and pressure South Africa’s government to end apartheid and release Mandela from prison, where he spent 27 years.
Over President Ronald Reagan’s opposition, Congress passed the 1986 Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act, imposing sanctions against South Africa until certain conditions were met. Reagan, worried about a communist takeover of South Africa, vetoed it. But Congress, in a rare show of bipartisanship, overrode his veto.
South African President P.W. Botha remained defiant, saying, “We have never given in to outside demands and we are not going to do so.”
But his administration couldn’t withstand the isolation, and he resigned in 1989 to be replaced by F.W. de Klerk, who freed Mandela and began paving the way to end apartheid.
The supportive role Americans played points to the best way to honor Mandela: by taking injustice, no matter the target, so personally that you are compelled to act.