Hasseler Op-Ed: Let’s Remember Mandela, Carry on His Quest
Let’s Remember Mandela, Carry on His Quest
By Dr. Susan Hasseler
The international remembrance and celebration of the life and legacy of Nelson Mandela has brought back many memories for me. In 2004, 10 years after the beginning of the transformation when Mandela was elected as president, I was invited to be a visiting lecturer at the University of Potchefstroom, the historically white Afrikaans institution that F.W. DeKlerk led before he became prime minister. I was invited because I was teaching at a Dutch reformed college in the U.S. I was invited to speak about race and multicultural education-issues which the historically white and historically black institutions in South Africa continue to address.
Two years prior, I had met Samson Makhado at a conference focusing on international education. Samson is a member of the Venda people in the Limpopo province of South Africa, member of the African National Congress and transformation activist, passionate believer in the power of education, and member of the United Reforming Church of South Africa. Its roots were in the same reformed church that crafted the theological apologetic for apartheid, a denomination closely affiliated with the one I grew up in. Samson was leading a continent-wide effort to improve primary and secondary education. Since I was heading to South Africa, I contacted Samson and arranged to work with him as well.
Thus began my journey of learning from both worlds in South Africa. I returned to South Africa five more times over the next four years. Each time, I spent time with Samson working with primary and secondary schools in primarily black communities and working with Afrikaaner and Black African colleagues in historically white universities that continue to grapple with their past, present and future. It was an amazing gift.
During that time, I had the opportunity to learn more about the people Mandela represented, as well as those with whom he negotiated reconciliation. There were too many lessons learned to share in this short piece, but I do want to describe two seminal events that changed my perspective on the world.
The first was a visit to Robbin Island, where Mandela and many others were incarcerated. This maximum-security prison was particularly difficult for the black or Bantu prisoners. They broke white limestone rocks for hours in the hot sun, resulting in permanent eye damage and other physical ailments for many. Mandela led in many ways in this place, but he did something that I found particularly striking. He not only led the prisoners in teaching each other to read (“each one, teach one”) but he also taught his illiterate white guards how to read. He had such a commitment to the power of education and dialogue in overcoming barriers, that he shared the gift of literacy with those who were oppressing him. He built bridges while he was in prison and continued to build these bridges when he was freed.
The second was my friend Samson’s story. Samson’s son, Moses, worked for a white farmer. He was injured in a farm accident and because of apartheid restrictions had to be transported more than 200 miles in the back of a pickup to get medical treatment, where he died. Samson and his wife spent days looking for Moses because the farmer had no idea what had happened to him. After much grief and careful thought, they chose to be part of a truth and reconciliation hearing and ultimately not only forgave the farmer but also are working hard to change the system. I asked Samson how he could possibly have forgiven the person responsible for the death of his son and he said, “One must forgive in order to move forward. The future of South Africa is more important than my grief and anger.”
It strikes me that Mandela embodied the spirit of a people who were able to forgive for the good of the whole, a large group of South Africans who are strong and intelligent and both pragmatic and idealistic at the same time, a group of people who are committed to living in some kind of harmony in their shared space, people who are hopeful and entrepreneurial in the face of significant challenge and willing to sacrifice. It’s not perfect, by any means, but for me this perspective has been life changing.
When asked “what will happen when Mandela dies,” my friend Samson would say, “Madiba carried the heart and soul of many of us who will continue to do the work. When the old man dies [said with the utmost respect], we will celebrate, we will mourn, and then we will carry on.”
To Nelson Mandela, representative of a people of hope, persistence, strength and reconciliation, may you rest in peace but may the work of transformation go on.