Penn remembers and reflects on the life of Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela, the former president of South Africa who was recognized worldwide as crusader for peace and justice, died Thursday, Dec. 5 at the age of 95.

Mandela was known and beloved across the globe for his dedication to eradicating racial oppression and fighting for equality for all people. Imprisoned for 27 years, Mandela was released in 1990 and elected to the presidency of South Africa in 1994.  

Mandela shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993 with former South African President F.W. de Klerk, for their work terminating the apartheid regime and setting the stage for democracy to flourish in the country.

That same year, Mandela and de Klerk came to Philadelphia to accept the Liberty Medal. At the time, Mandela said, “It is a moving thing for us—that we, who represent forces that have still to proclaim that freedom’s day has come, are today being handed the baton in the race to liberty, at whose starting point in Philadelphia stood the great men of whom the freed slave Frederick Douglass spoke with such warmth and charity of spirit.”

Mandela’s work, legacy, and peaceful spirit are being remembered by the Penn community.

“Nelson Mandela was an inspiring, history-making, and heroic man,” says Penn President Amy Gutmann. “His leadership and courage made it possible for South Africa to move forward, becoming a multiracial democracy without a violent civil war. Indeed, the world is decidedly freer due to his political and moral leadership.”

Gutmann remembers vividly her one-on-one meeting with Mandela in South Africa, shortly after he was released from prison.

“He had just spoken about the future of the country to an audience that contained some high-level politicians who were responsible for his imprisonment. Someone asked him how, having been unjustly imprisoned for 27 years—in the prime of his life—he did not show a hint of bitterness or hatred toward his captors. His answer: ‘I would not wish what was done to me and my people on any human being.’”

The Penn community held two events to honor Mandela’s life and work. The first was a candlelight vigil on Monday, Dec. 9 in front of W. E. B. Du Bois College House, 3900 Walnut St. The event was organized by the Penn African Students Association and sponsored by the African Studies Center.


The vigil was followed by the conversation, “President Mandela: The Man, the Movement, and Mandela’s Mark on History." William Gipson, associate vice provost for equity and access, convened the lecture, which took place in the multipurpose room at the W. E. B. Du Bois College House. The event featured Audrey Mbeje, lecturer in foreign languages and director of Penn’s African Language Program; Tsitsi Jaji, who teaches courses in the Department of English on the African Diaspora and continent; Carol Muller, professor of music and director of the African Studies Center; as well as undergraduate and graduate students.

A lasting impact

Mary Frances Berry, the Geraldine R. Segal Professor of American Social Thought and professor in the Department of History in Penn’s School of Arts & Sciences, who served as a member of the U. S. Commission on Civil Rights from 1980 to 2004 and as chair from 1993 to 2004, counts Mandela as an inspiration to her own fight for social justice.

“Nelson Mandela, was, of course, a magnificent leader in the cause of human rights, whose character was honed by suffering,” says Berry, who co-founded the Free South Africa movement, an anti-apartheid coalition. “I will never forget the day I first actually laid eyes on Mandela after so many years of working for his freedom and the end of apartheid. He came in to the mayor’s office in Capetown right after being released from prison, with a twinkle in his eye, with thanks and hugs and love all around for all who had worked and waited so long for his presence. He remained always not just the hero, but a down-to-earth guy—a real human being.”

Berry appeared on WHYY’s “Radio Times with Marty Moss-Coane” on Friday to remember Mandela and explain how it took a citizens’ movement to shift U.S. policy from support for apartheid to opposition to it.

She notes that Mandela was not always a political hero in the United States. “The people in this country, including in Philadelphia, at the campuses, and people in the community joined the Free South Africa movement when we started it and we all demanded divestment and we all demanded sanctions and we had to struggle,” Berry remembers, “and when we finally got the bill passed, President [Ronald] Reagan vetoed it and we had to go and march and protest and go to jail for another year to get it passed again over his veto.”

The connection to Mandela’s legacy is deeply personal for Denzel Cummings, a student in the College of Arts & Sciences and one of the Planning & Facilitating Co-Chairs for Umoja, an organization uniting students and student groups of the African Diaspora at the University. Cummings says his late grandfather touted the importance of leadership, and before he passed away, gave Cummings a copy of Mandela’s autobiography, “A Long Walk to Freedom.”

“Nelson Mandela swore to improve the lives of the people and culture that raised him, and subsequently changed the world,” Cummings says. “The legacy of Mandela reaches throughout the world, but is also distinctly personal for me as I see his influence in every mother and father figure I've ever had in my life. Mandela is the grandfather of every aspiring leader in the African Diaspora, and due to this, his legacy will live in these individuals for centuries to come.”

Indeed, Mandela’s actions after the end of apartheid set the standard for political reconciliation, says Tukufu Zuberi, a professor of sociology, the Lasry Family Professor of Race Relations, and professor of Africana studies in the School of Arts & Sciences.

“He lived a long and fruitful life. When the people of South Africa needed a life of sacrifice, he stood and walked the walk,” Zuberi says. “He was an international symbol of that which is good in us all if we could have the courage of a Nelson Mandela.”

Though Mandela left the presidency of South Africa in 1999, he continued to have a significant impact on business and government leaders, as well as society-at-large, says Paul J. H. Schoemaker, research director of the Mack Institute for Innovation Management at Wharton, who has written about how Mandela evolved into a strategic leader.

“Mandela’s many courageous acts—from deep personal sacrifices for human rights to embracing his hard-core enemies after 28 years of tough prison time—stand as novel approaches to societal transformation and healing,” Schoemaker says. “Paying a personal visit as President to Betsie Verwoerd, the frail elderly widow of the chief architect of the hated apartheid regime, was a remarkable gesture of magnanimity, as well as a creative, symbolic act to start to build bridges across a river of blood and pain.”

Mandela’s legacy in Penn classrooms

Rita Barnard, director of the Comparative Literature Program and professor of English and comparative literature, recently completed teaching “Mandela: History, Biography, Film,” an interdisciplinary course that examined mixed media to study Mandela’s influence on topics such as law, modern cities, prisons, the politics of gender, colonial oppression, and human rights.

Jaime Marie Estrada, a graduate student in the College of Liberal & Professional Studies and assistant to the director and rights administrator for Penn Press, was a student in Barnard’s class.

“It was kind of bewildering to hear that he passed away on Thursday. We had just wrapped up class about him on Wednesday night,” says Estrada. “I’m Hispanic, and so growing up for me, he was this looming figure representing freedom and people of color, but I had never really learned anything in depth in school until [Barnard’s] class. He was a great leader because he was willing to step back and work with people he didn’t always agree with but realized their strength would add to his strength.”

Josslyn Luckett, a second year Ph.D. student in Africana studies, was also a student in Barnard’s class.

“One of the things that has been extra-painful is that we’ve just been so steeped in the details of his life these last three months,” says Luckett. “What I have gotten from the class is that part of why he was such a great leader is because he was such a great listener. He always—whether it was in the early organizing days, through his time on Robben Island, and into his presidency, he always surrounded himself with brilliant, brilliant comrades, and he always listened to the diversity of voices.”

Classmate Trishula Patel, a graduate student in the Department of History, says she learned of Mandela's passing while immersed in a book on American policy toward South Africa from 1968. She is originally from Zimbabwe.

“Ultimately, I think his greatest legacy was inspiring so many South Africans during their struggle to keep hoping, to keep believing, to keep fighting,” says Patel, who recently completed Barnard’s course. “And that legacy still lives on today, even for those who were not born during apartheid, but instead in a free South Africa. And a free Africa too, despite the many problems that face all us Africans today. Mandela stands for what people like my parents and my grandparents fought so hard for.”

Nelson Mandela