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Remembering Nelson Mandela

Africa specialists on Mandela legacy and what’s next for South Africa

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December 6, 2013

By Hilary Hurd Anyaso and Wendy Leopold

EVANSTON, Ill. --- As the world celebrates the life of Nelson Mandela, Northwestern’s Richard Joseph, the John Evans Professor of Political Science, and Medill associate professor Douglas Foster reflect on the life and legacy of the great South African leader.

Joseph, who has devoted his scholarly career to the study of politics and governance in Africa, said Mandela should be remembered as a freedom fighter. He said that much, if not all, of his vision has been realized against all odds. 

The author of “After Mandela: The Struggle for Freedom in Post-Apartheid South Africa,” Foster joined the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications faculty in 2004 to help build its South Africa Journalism Residency Program. After spending two to four months a year in South Africa with students in the residency program, he lived for a year in South Africa.

After the news broke that Mandela had died, both professors conducted a wide range of interviews with news media about Mandela. Each of them also shared their thoughts about the man Joseph calls “a leader to the world.”

Following is Hilary Hurd Anyaso’s interview with Professor Joseph:

What do you hope future generations take away from Mandela’s life and legacy?

Nelson Mandela shows that the greatest values in life are not reducible to material possessions. He demonstrated not just the importance of leadership but also moral leadership. His life is a testimony to the extraordinary transformation one individual can experience under the most adverse circumstances. The personal growth he underwent during 27 years of incarceration took him to a politico-spiritual plane, which transcended even that of his own party. He emerged from prison to become not just South Africa's national leader but also a leader to the world. Look at the Middle East today. What if a Mandela were to emerge to help transform that morass?

What will you remember most about him?

My earliest political experience was the independence movement of Trinidad and Tobago, where I was born. I subsequently met, and studied the life and work of, many black leaders of the Caribbean, the United States and Africa. The opportunity to meet Nelson Mandela in June 1990 should first be seen in that perspective. He belongs to a long line of intrepid leaders of the African and black world. Some, such as Eric Williams of Trinidad, survived to lead their people and nations to political freedom. While others like Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X of the U.S. perished in the struggle. Mandela’s triumph is also theirs.

What do you consider to be the most common misperception about Mandela?

He is such a benign figure that it can be forgotten that he is a freedom fighter. He and other ANC (African National Congress) leaders resorted reluctantly to armed struggle against a formidable foe, the apartheid regime. There is a video of the first President George Bush welcoming Mandela to the U.S. while giving him a lecture about the use of violence. When Mandela stepped up to the microphone to respond to President Bush, he threw off the cape of kindliness to show the still resolute leader of a freedom movement beneath it.

How has Mandela’s vision for South Africa been realized at this point in time?

South Africa is today, in some respects even more than the United States, a multi-racial, multi-ethnic and multi-religious constitutional democracy. South Africa is a "rainbow nation" with both political and socio-economic rights legally protected. That achievement in a few decades is astounding.

What is the singular message of Mandela for Americans?

It should be remembered that the anti-apartheid movement was international in nature. Our government and many corporations were often content to give lip service to ideals of democracy and social justice while being in cahoots with the apartheid regime. It took a congressional override of President Reagan's veto of sanctions legislation for the Boer regime to understand that their brutal rule since 1948 must end. The apartheid system lasted far longer than it should have because it was supported not only from within but also from abroad.

Following is Wendy Leopold’s interview with Professor Foster:

What made Mandela such an exceptional and beloved leader?

His combination of vision, steely pragmatism and insistence on reaching out to average South Africans. He was a nightmare for his handlers, in the presidency and after, because he would wander off, or order the motorcade to stop so that he could listen directly to the problems of poor people. He exercised radical empathy, not in a soft and fuzzy way but as a disciplined response to the trauma of that peculiar and extreme form of racial segregation known as apartheid.

Did you have occasion to meet him personally?

I got to know him mostly through his grandchildren because my book, “After Mandela,” centers on the question of what the next generation of South Africans will do with the freedom won in their name. Seeing him at home with his grandchildren, I was able to witness his mischievous quality up close.

I last saw Mandela at his home in Johannesburg where he greeted my son and me by saying, “It’s nice that young people still come around to see an old man even though he has nothing new to say.” We laughed, but with Mandela there was always a little needle in the jokes. In a way, he was challenging us to recognize how far he went in trying to create a new kind of society -- nonracial, anti-sexist, non-homophobic, more egalitarian -- and challenging the rest of us to do our part.

How do you view the future of South Africa without Mandela?

One of Mandela's big gifts and a large part of his legacy is to distinguish himself from so many other political leaders around the globe who spend much effort convincing us of their indispensability. Mandela very consciously worked to “wean us, like a good parent,” the phrase of the astute South African editor Ferial Haffajee. Mandela insisted on his dispensability, and he challenged the next generation to carry the dream forward.

Have you been watching the media coverage of Mandela’s death as well as commenting to media?

Yes, and the thing that bugs me is the pushback in social media in South Africa right now that’s presenting Mandela as a paragon of nonviolence, and comparing him to Ghandi and Martin Luther King. Mandela actually led the ANC to accept that peaceful means would not change society, that the white minority regime was prepared to ignore peaceful demonstrations until kingdom come. This kind of eliding of history doesn’t really help us understand Mandela’s genius, which has a narrative arc.

Any other thoughts?

Mandela’s death is not only a challenge to South Africans. There are limits to what any developing country can accomplish without international support. The challenge of turning political liberation into economic and social justice is a global challenge. The brilliance of the worldwide anti-apartheid movement was to understand the link between freedom in Chicago and liberty in Johannesburg. One way to celebrate the life of this extraordinary individual would be to deepen our commitment to equality.