Remembering Mandela

The world lost a great leader and inspiration with the death yesterday of Nelson Mandela, the former president of South Africa and an anti-apartheid hero.

His courage and wisdom are being remembered by in different ways by faculty, staff, students and alumni across the Carolina community:

A lasting legacy

When Joseph Jordan attended the unveiling of the Nelson Mandela statue in Washington, D.C., earlier this year, one topic was what the world might have been like without the forgiving leader, who was imprisoned for nearly three decades for his fight against white minority rule.

And it was hard to imagine.

“We have examples of Ghandi, of Martin Luther King, and Mandela — and it’s a very interesting sort of triangle, if you will,’’ said Jordan, director of the Sonja Haynes Stone Center for Black Culture and History. “And that brought it home to me that the 20th century was a period that was very trying and testing for the world political order, and if it had not been for these three people, it would have been much, much, much worse — particularly in the case of Mandela.”

Jordan previously co-chaired the international nonprofit Southern Africa Support Project, where he helped organize Mandela’s first visit to the United States in 1990 after Mandela was released from prison. Mandela’s legacy, Jordan said, is lasting.

“Regardless of whether he was an African leader, a South African leader … he established a notion of integrity and ethics that right now, if we were to ask other folks around the world, ‘What figure in the world represents that kind of image?’ it would be hard for us to come up with one person.

“Universally, it is understood that this is a person who went to prison for what he believed in, was offered a chance to get out if he renounced those views, but said he would rather stay in prison and die, rather than to renounce his ideas of social justice. That’s very rare.”

What if?

Kenneth S. Broun, Henry Brandis Professor of Law Emeritus and a former Chapel Hill mayor, never met Mandela in person. He did, however, get to know the members of the legal team who saved him from execution for treason in 1964. That trial and its impact are the subjects of Broun’s 2012 book “Saving Nelson Mandela: The Rivonia Trial and the Fate of South Africa.”

“It is hard to imagine what South Africa and the world would be like had Mandela been executed at the end of the Rivonia trial,” Broun said today, reflecting on Mandela’s legacy. “Most expected him to get the death sentence. Instead, he received a term of life imprisonment. I believe that apartheid would have eventually ended, but it was likely to be an end far bloodier than it was. And, if there was a full scale guerilla war in South Africa, it was certainly possible that other nations including the United States, Great Britain, China and the Soviet Union could have been involved.”

A Giant of a Man

Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja, a professor of African Studies in UNC’s Department of African, African American and Diaspora Studies at UNC, said Mandela’s lasting contribution is twofold: the vision of South Africa as a “rainbow nation” for peoples of all races and colors, and the fact that Mandela left the presidency after only one term, when Africa had been used to life-presidents.

“Nelson Mandela was a giant of a man who understood that liberating and governing a nation meant leading from behind through wisdom and inspiration,’’ Nzongola-Ntalaja wrote in an email, “His steadfast commitment to freedom and fundamental human rights was stated in his Rivonia trial statement that a democratic and free society is ‘an ideal for which I hope to live for and to see realized,’ but one that ‘if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.’”

Mandela was a pragmatic political leader who “opted for armed struggle when nonviolence became an ineffective weapon in the face of the brutal repression of peaceful demonstrations by the apartheid regime, but chose negotiations and compromise when internal and external conditions made it possible to establish a nonracial democracy without bloodshed,’’ Nzongola-Ntalaja continued.

Globally Revered

Rob Nelson, a 2000 Carolina graduate, spent seven weeks during summer 2013 in South Africa covering the story of an ailing Mandela for ABC News.

“It struck me in my time there, the level of respect and admiration that exists for him,” Nelson said. “He was revered, and he always will be. To travel there and go into his old home, to stand in his streets and to be in a country he helped build was tremendous.”

Nelson said the global reverence for Mandela is indicative of the legacy he leaves. “He was one of the towering figures of the 20th century. The world has changed so drastically, and changed so much because of him, that I don’t know we’ll see anyone like him again.

“At times like these, we often say, ‘Rest in Peace,’ and I can think of no one whose rest has been harder earned.”

Carolina’s South Africa divestment

The Anti-Apartheid Support Group (AASG) was organized and officially recognized as a student organization at UNC in October 1985.  From 1985 to 1987, the AASG led the campus movement against apartheid by insisting on divestiture of all University holdings in companies operating in South Africa. Their protests and demonstrations peaked in March and April 1986 when the group erected shanties in front of South Building. The group was dismantled shortly after the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Endowment Board voted in October 1987 to divest all of its holdings in companies operating in South Africa.

“The divestment was done carefully and responsibly, without violence to the portfolio,” Christopher Fordham, chancellor at the time, recalled in a 1996 interview. “It contributed one small, little scintilla to the overall sanctions which this country undertook. And so we were part of what turned out to be a reasonably effective and humane effort.”

Mandela Auditorium

At Carolina, visitors to the FedEx Global Education Center are reminded of Mandela’s life mission, achievements and global impact each time they step into the building. Since the building’s completion in 2007, the Nelson Mandela Auditorium continues to be one of the most used spaces in the building.

UNC Global plans to host a memorial in spring 2014, and is soliciting information and ideas for a memorial events.

The couple who donated the funds to build the auditorium wanted it to have Mandela’s name instead of theirs. “We felt that naming this for a great world leader was a much more important message to our students than naming it for a donor whose name or career meant nothing to our students,” said the donors, who have asked to remain anonymous.

The 250-seat auditorium hosts dozens of lecture courses, films, public lectures and conferences. The donors  say there are strong parallels between Mandela’s ideals and the University’s legacy. “There is a connection between Mandela’s life story – his fight for freedom and social justice – and Carolina’s spirit and tradition of advocating for progressive social change,” the donors said. “Carolina was a leader in the South during the fight for civil rights, and is increasingly advocating for change around the world, as the University and its students confront problems that are global in scale. We are all interconnected,” the donors said.

What they’re saying across campus

Carolina’s provost, professors and students took to social media to share their favorite quotes, songs, pictures and memories on the Storify entitled Carolina remembers Nelson Mandela.

Words to remember

Many people throughout the world remember Mandela’s four-hour speech during the Rivonia Trial, which he ended with the following:

“During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

By University Relations staff.

Published December 6, 2013. Updated December 9, 2013.