Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Mandela's work is our own

By john a. powell

On December 5th, the world lost not only a wise and inspiring leader, but a wonderful person in Nelson Mandela. Touching virtually all of our lives, he not only changed the course of world history, but he left us with a vision for change that we must continue to work to make a reality wherever we are. Like so many others, I want to give pause and pay tribute to President Mandela, who inspired me many years ago and continues to do so today.

Nelson Mandela To honor his life, I will share how I came to know of President Mandela and the people who stood with him and embraced his vision.

I first went to Africa in 1977 for post-graduate work on what were then called the "front-line states." These were countries in Africa fighting for national liberation from western control of southern Africa and white rule within. They included South Africa, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Mozambique, Tanzania, Zambia, Angola and Namibia. These countries each have a particular history and unique expression of a common structure of domination and explicit white racism and rule, bolstered by western powers, particularly the United States.

The American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) advocated an end to apartheid and racial domination through non-violent means and education. Their chief spokesperson was Bill Sutherland. Bill, an African American activist who embraced non-violence, had moved to Africa in the 1950s, in part, to protest racial segregation and militarization here in the United States. Bill began to work with the AFSC in the early 1970s, traveling around the United States and the world to talk about the conditions in southern Africa. Bill educated his audiences about the role that the United States and other western powers played in the suppression of blacks thousands of miles away by steadfastly supporting the apartheid governments.

Bill's travels took him to Ghana, where he became friends with many African leaders, including Julius Nyerere, Kenneth Kuanda, and Samora Machel. They shared a vision for a free and just Africa. This was how I came to know of apartheid, and U.S. support for that regime. I helped arrange part of Bill's tour in the U.S., and was immediately drawn to the cause and to Bill himself. He was like a father to me and treated me like a second son.

On the 'front line'

It was through Bill Sutherland that I learned of Nelson Mandela and the struggle against apartheid. I was so moved by these efforts that I not only got involved but also decided to move to Africa and work with Bill. I received a post-graduate fellowship, which I arranged to support Bill's efforts. He was working with what were called the "front-line states" engaged in the struggle to end apartheid and colonial rule in southern Africa. The greater base of this support was in Tanzania led by President Julius Nyerere.

Julius Nyerere
Julius Nyerere, late 1950s (UK National Archives)

Through this work I met President Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia, Samora Machel of Mozimbique, and many others. I would later meet Bishop Desmond Tutu and Justice Albert "Albie" Sachs, before he joined the South African Supreme Court. Most of these meetings took place at Bill's home in Dar es Salaam.

These were intimate gatherings and many of them took place over a meal or a drink in an informal setting. I lived with Bill, my partner Lanny and my daughter Saneta, who was born in Tanzania. I met people who were part of the ANC and Pan African Congress, whom most Americans have not heard of, or have forgotten.

President Nyerere was a giant in Africa and the first African leader to voluntarily step down from the presidency. He was a beacon for all of Africa, and those throughout the world who would learn about the cause of national liberation and democracy. Many have written that there would be no Mandela as we know him without Nyerere.

Others have gone further to claim that Nyerere gave birth to democracy in Africa. He committed his poor country to freedom and justice, standing against the west and the United States, whose governments firmly backed white rule in these countries. I remember talking to President Nyerere in his modest home, drinking wine out of jelly jars.

Nyerere, Bill and Nelson Mandela soon came to be viewed as a threat by the U.S. government at a time when many western governments permitted the killing of people who dared to demand an end to white rule. I knew many of these people. Albee Sachs, a Justice on the South African Supreme Court, lost an arm and part of his vision to an assassination attempt.

Others would not be so lucky, including President Samora Machel and Steve Biko, who led the black-consciousness movement in South Africa. As I worked closely with Bill, who was a pacifist, our relationship deepened. This experience changed my life. When I returned to the U.S., I could not work for some time because of my association with Bill and the effort to end apartheid.

It is important to remember what that struggle was and in many ways continues to be. People throughout the continent of Africa, along with the AFSC in the United States and Europe, were inspired by Mandela to oppose apartheid and stand for justice. They called for divestment of U.S. banks, universities and pension funds to buttress a struggle that was a great distance from their home. The government and elites insisted that these protesters were naive and could never win. After all, they were only students, artists, union members and "liberal" college professors; what did they know about South Africa, banking or real politics?

Predictably, the movement was not led by our nation's leaders, but by Nelson Mandela and his co-activists and supporters worldwide. Many in our country, including several presidents, were on the wrong side of history in the name of national interest. The U.S. government did not even remove Mandela from the official terrorism "watch list" until 2008. Victory, even if partial, does not belong to our former leaders who refused to support the struggle when it was a struggle. It belongs to President Mandela, his family, and those who stood on the right and just side of history.

Mandela's vision

I was fortunate to meet President Mandela on several occasions. The most poignant experience was sharing a meal in his private quarters. Back in the United States, I had consulted on the transition from apartheid to a just, inclusive society, and was invited to celebrate the new educational system in South Africa in 1998. Even though this was a great honor, I declined the invitation because of my teaching responsibilities at the University of Minnesota Law School. Flying to South Africa from Minneapolis was not easy.

In 1998 I had the opportunity for a private meeting with Nelson Mandela could be arranged. Of course, I accepted. At the meeting with Mandela, I was more than impressed. It was not just his greatness that came through, but his empathic humanity and openness. I knew that I was very fortunate, and was reminded of President Julius Nyerere.

Nelson Mandela was part of a larger fabric of activists striving for justice, people who devoted their time and sacrificed much, including – at times – their lives. Mandela's vision of an inclusive, rainbow society went beyond politics. He was successful in ending apartheid, but understood the work that remained. After stepping down from the presidency, he would even criticize his own party for corruption and for not being inclusive enough.

Mandela's life, leadership, and deep humanity may be singular, but it was shaped and made possible by many fellow freedom workers, including Nyerere, Bill Sutherland and hosts of unnamed men and women. Mandela, in turn, touched and transformed countless additional lives, including my own. In honoring his life, it is appropriate to remember those who not only advanced his struggle, but those who will continue to advance what his life was about and move us ever closer to his vision of a just and inclusive society. The bounty of Nelson Mandela's life was rich and continues to yield fruit even now.

As the world leaders pay tribute, we must recognize that Nelson Mandela, and what he represents, continues to demand our support. While I wonder who might be the "Mandelas" of today, engaged in similar struggles for justice and inclusivity, I realize that we are all called to be him. Yes, we should all mourn and celebrate. But more importantly, we should carry on the work that Mandela championed with equal strength, dedication and sacrifice.