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Berkeley faculty reflect on the legacy of Nelson Mandela

G. Ugo Nwokeji, director, Center for African Studies | December 6, 2013

“Never have I seen anybody as universally revered as Nelson Mandela. I do reflect on this phenomenon from time to time, trying to explain it, but despite all he did and achieved, I have not found a satisfactory explanation except that his kind visits humankind once in ages. This is all the more remarkable, in view of the currently low profile of the continent. As an African, it fills me with pride that the one person to have occupied this pedestal in my lifetime is an African.”

Catherine Cole, chair and professor of theater, dance and performance studiescatherinecole60

“Mandela was called Rolihlahla (‘troublemaker’) and Dalibhunga (‘convener of the dialogue’). His life is a testament to the power of both. Even in the twenty-seven years he was unseen and unheard while in prison, he changed the world. He will continue to do so long after his death. Madiba lived and was prepared to die for an ideal–the ideal of a democratic and free society. His legacy is a reminder to us, in this cynical age, that a single person’s commitment to ideals can be world transforming.”

James Davies, assistant professor of musicJamesDavies60

“I was fortunate to see Mandela up close twice. The first was when I was in the choir behind him at his 1994 presidential inauguration in Pretoria. I vividly recall singing the new national anthem and bits from Mendelssohn’s Elijah, and the hair-raising moment when that chevron of Impala jets screamed without warning over the Union Buildings.


The second time was at a wedding of one of the Sisulu family in Yeoville, Johannesburg, where (around the age of twenty) I used to direct a small choir and play organ. The whole thing was a blur for me, after one of Mandela’s bodyguards instructed us, that because he, Tutu, and Sisulu had now entered St Aidan’s, we should begin the ceremony, even though the bride had yet to arrive! We sang far too many wedding songs that day.

Madiba was a fighter. I have to say that I’m worried that this extraordinary global sanctification of him, as merely an icon of peace and love, represents a way of neutralizing his radical legacy. His was not a liberalism shorn of revolutionary content, or at ease with the status quo. Tata taught us what it means to struggle for social transformation. And his struggle continues. Hamba kahle umkhonto.”

Nancy Scheper-Hughes, professor of anthropologyScheper-Hughes60

“Here’s one for the ladies. I was lucky to hear Mandela speak several times in the year leading up to his election 1993-1994, but I met him only once at a big garden party in Cape Town following the opening of the parliament in February 1996. I had just returned to South Africa with my adult son, Nate, for a period of fieldwork and we were surprised and unprepared for an invitation to what we thought would be a casual affair rather than a gala occasion with limos and a gorgeous array of MP guests in their New South African haute couture of flowing robes, tunics and silk shirts.MandelaTribal300

Embarrassed in my leather sandals, I ducked inside a large canvas tent to hide and, head-down, I collided into the body of the President himself. When I looked up and saw this amazing tower of royal beauty, strength, and dignity, I fell to my knees and kissed his hand, tears flowing spontaneously. Gently but firmly Madiba pulled me up and tucked my arm under his saying that he needed some assistance while walking to the podium outside. He chatted all the way but I was as mute as a giraffe. Throughout that evening, whenever he saw me he teasingly pointed to his cheek as if he were wiping away tears and then shook his finger – No! No! He was quite a flirt.

But here’s what he had to say to the women who had gathered together at a meeting of the ANC Women’s League in Athlone in 1994 just weeks before his election. As the women joyfully danced and ululated, Mandela silenced them to say that he had a message he wanted them to take home to their husbands. “Tell your husbands that Nelson Mandela says that the time has come and the tables are turning. They too must change. Mandela wants them to wash their their wives underwear!” Were we hearing things right? Yes, we were. He repeated the words “Now it is their turn to wash the hand-washables. Say that Mandela wants our men to show gratitude to their wives by washing their underwear.” He meant it and the mass of women collapsed in delighted laughter.”

Bowie60Rauri Bowie, assistant professor of integrative biology

Madiba, through his perpetual capacity for forgiveness, tolerance, and understanding, united a broken nation. Thank you Madiba for all you did for South Africa and the world. May your spirit live on in all South Africans, keeping us on the path of freedom and equality for all.”

Gillian Hart, professor of geography, co-chair of development studies GillianHart-60

“On hearing that Nelson Mandela had died, I spoke with Alfred Duma, a Robben Island veteran I have known for many years who lives in a township near Ladysmith in the province of KwaZulu-Natal.   He insisted that our feelings of grief and loss must be combined with joy and celebration of Madiba’s extraordinary life and all that he gave to the world.  At the same time Mr Duma did not shy away from critical reflections on present-day South Africa, and made clear that he saw Madiba’s passing as an opportunity to recall and reclaim the values that drove many in the liberation movement to struggle for a better world. ”

GetzWayne60Wayne Getz, professor of environmental science, policy and management

“In some ways, for me, this is one of the most momentous events to bring closure to the 20th century.  Gandhi was such an important figure for the first half of the twenty century and Mandela for the second half. For me, these two men, along with Martin Luther King, Jr., who tragically could lead only for a short decade and a half, are the towering icons shepherding the transformation from oppression to freedom that took place throughout the world during the 20th Century (of course we still have a ways to go, but now it is more income inequality than anything else).”