Centennial of Nelson Mandela’s birth

Penn professor Tukufu Zuberi reflects on the South African president’s legacy.

Tukufu Zuberi is the Lasry Family Professor of Race Relations and a professor of Africana studies and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. 

It has been 100 years since the birth of Nelson Mandela. A revolutionary imprisoned by the white South African government for 27 years, he was elected his country’s first black president, serving in that role from 1994 to 1999. Winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, Mandela fought to dismantle apartheid, becoming a global symbol of African independence.

Nelson Mandela, circa 2000

The University of Pennsylvania’s Tukufu Zuberi has focused his long career on the study of Africa, starting as a college student protesting against apartheid and for divestment. Zuberi is the Lasry Family Professor of Race Relations and a professor of sociology and Africana studies in the School of Arts and Sciences. Among his many leadership posts during his 29 years at Penn, he was the founding director of the Center for Africana Studies.  

Zuberi is the writer and producer of “African Independence,” a feature-length documentary that explores the movement to win independence in Africa. Penn Today spoke with him about Mandela’s legacy and his impact now, following his death in December 2013.

What is important to remember about Nelson Mandela? 

I think of Nelson Mandela, in a general way, as one of those human beings we should know and understand, like Abraham Lincoln, like Martin Luther King, and Harriet Tubman.  These are individuals who have made an indelible mark, who have advanced our thinking on what it means to be a human being. We do have that potential to improve ourselves. Nelson Mandela was a beacon for that improvement. 

Nelson Mandela is a representative in the fight for humanity. South Africa was a stronghold against human equality. Nelson Mandela represented a new fight, that mass political action could be converted to a positive theme.

I think that when people think of Nelson Mandela, they think of the call for new relationship between Africa and the world. His struggle was our struggle, his imprisonment was our imprisonment, his freedom was our freedom, his equality was our equality, his justice was our justice. He did it in the name of us all. 

How did his place in world history evolve?

We have to recognize his individual importance and the complexity of the times when he becomes an iconic figure. Years ago when I was in college, we would hold protests against the continued existence of apartheid. While I was in graduate school, we were protesting to get banks to divest from South Africa. At those moments, he was already a symbol of the struggle. As the representative of the African National Congress, he combined with others to lead the movement for African independence at a critical moment.

The continued survival of direct settler colonialism as practiced on the African continent was coming to an end. South Africa was the last country to not have experienced political independence. Nelson Mandela represented the end of this form of colonialism because South Africa liberation marked the completion of political independence, “flag” independence, political independence in Africa. The flying of the French flag and the British flag, signifying the political power of the country, was gone for African nations. Now there are 54 independent African nations, and the movement for African independence continues to advance. 

What was the significance of his fight against apartheid, race-based segregation? 

Ending apartheid became the key to African political independence. Nelson Mandela made the case that under white rule South Africa was not independent, nor was it good for the African population.

He was not fighting for a non-violent revolution. South Africa did not pay attention to non-violence. In my film, “African Independence,” I include a clip of his response to President George Bush at the White House in 1990 after his release from prison, saying that when the government doesn’t allow free political activity, no matter how peaceful or nonviolent, then people have no alternative but to resort to violence. 

To understand Nelson Mandela’s place in history, he represented that fight: that by any means necessary we must end this oppression, we must end this domination, we must end this marginalization, and use the tools that will be effective. If non-violent then non-violent but if ineffective you have to change tactics. 

Nelson Mandela was very restrained. He did not call for the murder of white people or the disenfranchisement of white people or even immediate return of land taken from black people by white people. He was very conciliatory to the adversaries of equality and justice. 

This is what Nelson Mandela represented to the world. It was his willingness to talk, willingness to have a conversation, for peace and reconciliation. He had the wisdom to negotiate without the total destruction of South Africa or the retaliation against the population classified as white. 

How did his movement change the perception of Africa by other world powers?

Nelson Mandela made an international call for taking steps to build a strong nation in South Africa and a strong continent of nations. He asked the world to consider doing business differently on the African continent, and he called for African nations to do business differently with the rest of the world. He wanted to have a different relationship with the world, a relationship where African nations would collaborate with others to work to build Africa together. He rejected the normal idea of aid from the world to Africa. From Mandela’s point of view, the world needed a shift in perspective.  He called for the world to work with African nations, and to not just come in and solve African problems.  He thought the best people to solve Africa’s problems were Africans. 

An independent Africa with political, military, and economic independence has not been achieved. A union like the European Union was the idea of early freedom fighters, who thought that Africa needed to combine into one nation. In the words of Kwame Nkrumah, Africa needed a “United States of Africa”.  Nelson Mandela may not have prioritized the need for the United States of Africa, but he was a strong supporter of a stronger African Union.

What were Nelson Mandela’s goals that have yet to be met?  

Nelson Mandela embraced his role as a symbol of justice and equality.  He represented the fight against racial and ethnic marginalization.  The current political moment has been overcome with steps back into intolerance and racism and xenophobia.  The elections and political changes in the United States, the European Union, and Latin America are all confronted with the rise of political movements against what Nelson Mandel represented for the world.  Perhaps now is a good moment to reconsider the image and message of Nelson Mandela as a goal for the future.