The George Washington University joins the world in mourning the death of Nelson Mandela, who passed away on Thursday at age 95. The renowned leader fought tirelessly to end apartheid and unite South Africa, overcoming a 27-year prison sentence to become the country’s first black president.
In her book “Robben Island and Prisoner Resistance to Apartheid,” GW Professor of Sociology Fran Buntman examined how prisoners used their time in South Africa’s notorious prison to advance and extend their activism. She was particularly drawn to Mr. Mandela, who spent 18 years on the island, for his genius in mobilizing and working with others.
“Too often, people talk as though Mr. Mandela was the only person who made change in South Africa. Paradoxically, that discredits his leadership, because part of what made him so extraordinary was his ability to empower and engage with the people around him,” Dr. Buntman said.
Dr. Buntman spoke to George Washington Today about what she learned about Mr. Mandela in her research and the legacy he leaves behind.
Q: While writing your book, what most surprised or compelled you about Mr. Mandela?
A: He almost never acknowledged the enormous harm and cost of his imprisonment. He often spoke of how much it hurt his family, but he rarely addressed that it had personally hurt him. During my research, I found a quote he gave while serving as president in a democratic South Africa. A group of children asked him why he wore what came to be his trademark colorful shirts and why he didn’t wear ties. He answered, “You must remember, I was in jail for 27 years. Now that I am free, I want to feel freedom, and therefore, I wear my shirts.” It was a rare acknowledgement of the torment he had gone through.
Mr. Mandela also had real capacity to grow, change and learn from mistakes—whether they were his own mistakes, or other people’s mistakes. In his autobiography, he talks powerfully about young activists who were brought into the prison where he and older leaders were held. These young people challenged many of the ways older activists saw the world and acted. Mr. Mandela talked about how he needed to learn from the younger generation. He showed an enormous capacity for change and learning that very few people—let alone political leaders—demonstrate in public.
He came from a very traditional, patriarchal world, and yet over time, his definition of human and civil rights changed. He embraced gay and lesbian rights, which was not something someone from his world would readily have done. At the same time, when he really believed in something, he was unshakable. He was absolute in his belief in his political party and organization, in a way that I consider both helpful and hurtful. He was a man of paradox: In some ways, he was unshakeable. In many other ways, he was open to change and growth.
Q: How has South Africa and the rest of the world reacted to his death?
A: People have been going to his house in Johannesburg by the thousands to leave flowers, candles, notes and so on. It’s probably what everybody in South Africa is talking about right now, despite where they are in the country or their color or their economic status or education. The South African government has announced an official mourning period with a state funeral on Dec. 15. Many people who are not familiar with South Africa may not be aware that Sunday’s National Day of Prayer and Reflection to honor Mr. Mandela officially refers to all temples, churches, synagogues, mosques, etc. It reminds us that one of the positive legacies that Mr. Mandela reinforced was of religious pluralism and inclusivity. At his inauguration, he had representatives of many different faiths give prayers.
In the U.S., I was struck by how the news of his death really dominated different outlets—National Public Radio, the Washington Post and so on. It’s been many years—perhaps since he was released from prison—that there’s been this extent of focus on Mr. Mandela and South Africa. Americans have also visited and left memorial items at the South African embassy here in Washington.
Q: Have there been any speeches or words at memorials that have captured the impact Mr. Mandela had on the world?
A: Paraphrasing the words of Martin Luther King Jr., President Barack Obama said, “We need to give thanks for Nelson’s Mandela presence in our lives and in our history. Let us pause and give thanks that Nelson Mandela lived—a man who took history in his hands and bent the arc of the moral universe toward justice.” I think that captures the fact that Mr. Mandela really did change the world, and not just in South Africa. People will recognize that he has had and will continue to have great impact worldwide.
But he was also a very complex person. I don’t know if any human being can be summarized in a phrase, especially someone who was 95 years old and lived such an extraordinary life with extraordinary accomplishments.
Q: How will Mr. Mandela be remembered for years to come?
A: Everyone should realize each person can really make a difference. Mr. Mandela wasn’t just one among many people; he was a person who mobilized other people, inspired and set an example. He made a huge difference, showing each of us can and should make a change in what counts.
I hope a more nuanced picture of him emerges. The United States considered him a terrorist, then a sole leader in South Africa. Neither of those images was true. He was a peacemaker who embraced armed struggle, a traditionalist who embraced modernity and a believer in the rule of law who also saw a time for civil disobedience—that kind of complexity is what I hope will be embraced in the future rather than treating him as an isolated superman. He wasn’t simplistic, and much of his example and his strength lie in his complexities.