Nelson Mandela’s legacy will be one of reconciliation, peacemaking and service, central Maine scholars and residents from southern Africa said Friday.
Colby College senior Rumbidzai Gondo, who interned at a South African organization named for Mandela, said she felt mixed emotions when she learned of his death Thursday: sadness, relief that he’s no longer suffering and hope that people will honor his memory by working for unity and peaceful resolution to problems.
“I think he was an example of something that needs to happen and what African leaders should emulate,” Gondo said. “Being gone is a challenge to keep on his work.”
Gondo said Mandela is widely admired in her home country, Zimbabwe, which shares a border with South Africa. In 2012, she was an intern at the Mandela Institute of Development Studies, which shares Mandela’s belief that Africans should play a central role in finding solutions to the continent’s development problems.
Mandela’s leadership in dismantling apartheid without retribution was his most important contribution to human rights, said Robert Bernheim, who teaches history at the University of Maine at Augusta and is the former director of the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine.
“He’s a great example, and those who worked with him, of how to not get into a bloodbath, of how to pursue a policy of reconciliation,” Bernheim said. “It’s my opinion that that saved countless lives. Compassion and forgiveness as key components of how you govern a country is very revolutionary.”
The example provided in South Africa by Mandela, Bishop Desmond Tutu and others has guided reconciliation efforts following the genocide in Rwanda and civil war in Sierra Leone, as well as the Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Bernheim said.
Clyde Mitchell, a University of Maine at Farmington accounting professor who lived in South Africa from 1979 to 2006, said he remembers the great excitement when Mandela was released from prison in 1990 and inaugurated president in 1994.
“He was quite amazing in that he didn’t appear to hold any grudges in spite of having spent such a big chunk of his life in jail for what he believed in,” he said.
Although South Africans have had some time to prepare for Mandela’s death, given that he had been hospitalized for much of this year, it is still sad to say goodbye to an icon of the country and will take some time to sink in, Mitchell said.
Though he was in prison half a world away in the 1980s, Mandela was very much on people’s minds at college campuses, including Colby’s.
Retired economics professor Tom Tietenberg was chairman of the faculty committee that convinced Colby’s trustees in 1985 to pull the college’s investments from companies that did business in South Africa, a strategy to pressure the government to end apartheid.
Colby’s president at the time, William R. Cotter, supported the divestment campaign. He was familiar with the anti-apartheid movement from his time leading the Africa-America Institute, a New York organization that aids African development.
“It’s clear that Nelson Mandela was the reason for our divestment,” Tietenberg said. “Our president recognized what role he (Mandela) could play if he were out of prison. The feeling was we needed to do whatever we could do to make that happen, and divestment was what we chose.”
Divestment is largely considered to have been successful, and apartheid ended without leading to civil war, which Colby government professor Laura Seay said was once thought impossible.
Seay, who specializes in African politics, said some American politicians opposed Mandela and his party, the African National Congress, because they thought they were Communist. But once in office, Mandela was not the radical firebrand some expected.
“I think it was important for people outside of Africa to see a black African leader govern a black African country well,” Seay said.
South Africa still has plenty of problems, including massive inequalities of wealth, health and opportunity. Also, the African National Congress is so dominant in elections that it’s difficult to hold the government accountable for corruption and incompetence, Seay said.
As party elders have died, however, the party has faced disagreements about its future. Seay said she expects many factions to claim Mandela’s legacy, just as different flavors of Republicans in the United States have tried to lay claim to Ronald Reagan.
Gondo said she thinks Mandela’s work to empower people and make peace will be continued through the many organizations established in his name and events such as Mandela Day, a day of service observed on his birthday, July 18.
Tietenberg said he felt incredible sadness when he learned of Mandela’s death.
“In the history of the world, in some sense, there are some figures who just stand out as playing an incredibly key role in transforming societies in good ways,” Tietenberg said. “He is certainly one of those people.”