The death of Nelson Mandela, former president of South Africa, Nobel Peace Prize recipient and international symbol of resistance against the racist system of apartheid, has sparked a worldwide outpouring of sympathy, condolences and tributes.
Mandela's heroic story of enduring 27 years of imprisonment, his amazing election as president and extraordinary ability to forgive horrible injustice and then bind a country —on the verge of racial warfare— together through a call for peace and reconciliation, became universally recognized as an example of inspirational and transcendent leadership. On the Saint Mary's campus, several community members commented on the loss of the 95-year-old icon for freedom and human dignity.
"It was his ability to take on within himself the suffering of a people of a country, and this is what real leaders do. They are able to embody, internalize these profound experiences of suffering, of injustice and he was able to bring them together in a very powerful and internalized way. That was just one aspect of his extraordinary character that struck me,” said Saint Mary's President James Donahue.
"It wasn't that he was not bitter, or scarred from the deprivation and the oppression that he experienced. He was somehow, remarkably, able to rise above it, not denying what he went through; he did not negate what he went through, but somehow he understood that experience of injustice was not the final word."
During a 2010 visit to Cape Town to visit his son Nick, then a junior doing a study abroad course while enrolled at Georgetown University, Donahue recognized how deep and systematic the wounds of apartheid were, its vestiges—economic disparities, poverty, crime—were still clearly visible. "My sense of South Africa was that it was a society still working through the wounds of apartheid and to have a leader who could carry them forward when he did, to transcend those deep social wounds was really powerful," said Donahue. "It doesn't make the pain of the wounds, or the complexity of the racial injustice go away. It didn't make racism go away, or make equality happen overnight, but it made people recognize they were on the journey, or on a path to something better. And I think that here at Saint Mary's College, we all should recognize and celebrate the life of Mandela as a true moral leader who was able to accomplish so much, and not just for his country, but his ability as a leader to bring about incredible results was an example for the world."
Retired professor Linda Saulsby, who directed the College's Liberal and Civic Studies department, traveled to South Africa four times, twice in the 1980s (before the end of apartheid), again in the 1990s and most recently for a 2009 Jan Term class about the country in its post-apartheid years. "The depth and breadth of his legacy on South Africa is difficult to articulate. I have often commented that half of the structures in South Africa are currently named for Mandela, and I think the other half will be named for him upon his passing," said Saulsby. "Blacks love him because he liberated them, and whites, most of them, love him because he chose to be a statesman and save the country and not a revolutionary and burn it to the ground. He had the power to do either. But his personal charisma and brilliant mind guided the country from darkness to light. He was simply larger than life."
SEBA professor Rebecca Carroll also traveled to South Africa several times with students during Jan Terms. "No matter where we went, in tiny town or large city, the people's love and respect for Mandela was palpable. Even the poorest dirt-floor homes had on the wall a photo of Mandela. To many South Africans, he was not just their president, he was their father, " said Carroll. She recalled on one trip meeting a former inmate from the Robben Island Prison, where Mandela was incarcerated for 27 years. "He said he was a tour guide at the prison when he was a teenager and had beed jailed for being active in the African National Congress (ANC), which fought to overthrow the apartheid system. He also said his father was very angry with him for getting involved with the ANC. But while he was in prison, he told us that Mandela said they would make Robben Island their university. So Mandela and other prisoners studied together when they were not working in the limestone quarry. Years later, he and his father stood in line for many hours to cast their votes in the election that made Mandela the first black president of South Africa."
Alumna Jamila Buckner '88, who works in the College's Human Resources department recalled her experience as one of tens of thousands who gathered at the Oakland Coliseum in June 1990 to hear Mandela speak after his release from prison. "I remember the feeling of overwhelming joy. It made you feel proud that the efforts that everyone who had participated in previous boycotts and protests that pushed the South African government to free Mandela were successful, and when he came to the Coliseum, the jubilation, and the celebration...I had a sense of being a part of history. It left me with a sense of awe."
Saint Mary's senior, Evan Richardson '13, said he had a deep appreciation for the former South African president. "He was an icon worthy of praise and admiration." Richardson, who is president of the Black Student Union at the College, recently led a silent demonstration on the campus to protest a racial hate crime at San Jose State University. He said Mandela was an example for all college students who campaign for social justice. "No matter how daunting the task, he inspired us to be brave by facing our fears head on."
For Admissions staff member Shiralee Batten, the loss feels personal. She grew up in South Africa and could not hold back her emotions when asked about Mandela. Her eyes welled with tears as she spoke of the turmoil of the apartheid years, "We constantly felt anguish and concern. We imagined the worst—bloodshed, violence, rioting and murder. Years of brewing anger seemed about to erupt and explode." But those fears never materialized, Batten said, because of Mandela, who she calls "Tata, Madiba." A term of endearment many black and white South Africans had for the fallen leader, in isiXhosa, tata means father and Madiba is the name of Mandela's clan. "Madiba believed violence was never going to solve the injustices born from apartheid and, together with F.W. De Klerk, they sought a peaceful resolution." (De Klerk was the last president of the apartheid era and was co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize with Mandela for helping to end the racist system of segregation).
"Under Madiba we came to see that racism is not something our children are born with. My oldest daughter’s first two years of school were in a white classroom; after integration we found out that kids learn from one another regardless of race or identification. The kids said, we’re the same, when we fall down, we all bleed red.”
Batten, whose son Kyle '11 played rugby for Saint Mary's, said she will always remember how Mandela used the popularity of the sport to help unite the nation. "I will never forget Saturday, June 24, 1995, the day our president defied all, pulled on a Springbok Rugby jersey and cap, and walked onto Ellis Park rugby field in Johannesburg before a world cup rugby final. It was a gamble because at the time rugby was still seen as a racist sport only played by whites." But Mandela's gamble worked. The nearly all-white crowd erupted in support and the Springbok's went on to win the cup. "Who could have imagined this immense game changer? Our rainbow nation was born."
"I remember that Madiba said in a speech that we have been living in boxes for three hundred years, identifying ourselves as black or white or Indian, but that will change now, we are all South Africans. As a powerful symbol of this sentiment, our identification numbers, like social security numbers here, changed. They each formerly ended with a three-digit code identifying a person’s race. Madiba eliminated that. There will only ever be one Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela," added Batten. "He was the father of our rainbow nation and he will never be forgotten."