Nelson Mandela, the former president of South Africa and one of the most popular world leaders of the 20th century, died Thursday. He was 95 years old. The country’s first black president, Mandela will be most remembered for his fight against apartheid in South Africa. A battle he partially fought while in prison for 27 years before being elected president in 1994. We asked Northeastern law professor Margaret Burnham, who met Mandela when he appointed her to an international human rights commission, to discuss his leadership and legacy.
Nelson Mandela is one of the greatest world leaders of the 20th century. In your view what will his most important legacy be?
Nelson Mandela changed the world; few people would dispute that fact. How he and the members of his political party, African National Congress, influenced the trajectory of American politics is less understood. Three enduring principles of the South African movement he led reshaped American domestic initiatives. First, as Mandela observed in Long Walk to Freedom, his party was non-sectarian. It was “the great umbrella under which all Africans could find shelter,” because he and others insisted the party’s strength lay in its rich admixture of political and social thought. Secondly, to Mandela it was a matter of first principle that “South Africa Belongs To All Who Live in it, Black and White.” He rejected claims that Europeans should be ousted from a post-apartheid South Africa and insisted on what is now widely accepted as the 21st-century racial dispensation: wherever we are, no matter our racial or ethnic background or how we got there, we are at home. Third, Mandela knew that although he had earned worldwide admiration and trust, he alone could not deliver meaningful change in South Africa. What would ensure lasting change was only massive engagement from the bottom up, among those who had been most marginalized by apartheid, rather than dispensations worked out by elites at the top.
What were his unique qualities as a leader?
Perhaps most unique was his generosity of spirit. Here was someone who spent the most productive years of his life breaking rocks at Robben Island, and when he stepped back into the world he did not speak a word of revenge. He endured deep personal tragedies, lost the joys of family life, and all of it he accepted, giving us back his smile, his hope in human possibility, and his belief in “Ubuntu,” which is to say, we all live in the light and the shadows of each other.
He was a man of enormous political skill and flexibility. He led the ANC military when the time was ripe for armed struggle in South Africa, leading Margaret Thatcher and others to label him a terrorist. Within the ANC movement he nurtured the spirit of dialogue, accountability, and contestation. He held himself out for criticism, among his colleagues in prison and after his release. He demonstrated extraordinary courage and principle: when the government sought to release him, he declined.
In 1993, Mandela appointed you to an international human rights commission to investigate alleged human rights violations within the African National Congress. What is one memory you have of him that exemplifies the kind of person he was?
When I first met him at his home in Johannesburg, I brought with me 27 letters from the students in my daughter’s third grade class. I gave them to him and asked if he had time to give me a short message to take back to the class. He said he would, and I forgot about it. The next time I saw him, he had written 27 individual letters to each of those third graders. My daughter, of course, was thrilled.