Mandela’s death recalls memories of UC Berkeley’s student anti-apartheid movement

World Economic Forum/Creative Commons
Nelson Mandela shakes hands with former South African President F.W. de Klerk in the World Economic Forum at Davos, Switzerland in 1992.

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It wasn’t until a student piped up in the middle of lecture Thursday that South African native and UC Berkeley professor Gillian Hart learned that anti-apartheid revolutionary Nelson Mandela had died at 95.

Hart, a geography professor specializing in Southern Africa and Southeast Asia, was one of many members of the campus community who took the day to reflect not only on the loss but also on the lasting legacy of South Africa’s first black president.

“It’s a moment of intense grief,” Hart said. “It’s an extremely sad moment.”

In 1990, after spending 27 years in prison, Mandela emerged to lead South Africa toward democracy. Three years later, he won the Nobel Peace Prize with F. W. de Klerk, the last president of apartheid-era South Africa, for helping the country peacefully end its system of racial segregation. Mandela became president the following year.

According to UC Berkeley political science associate professor Leonardo Arriola, Mandela oversaw the regime change in South Africa when the country had one of the worst forms of oppression in the region.

“He sets a tradition in South Africa where you need periodic transitions in leadership to make democracy work,” Arriola said. “We need to better understand how we can maybe encourage other leaders and ourselves to make those kinds of decisions.”

Shortly after the announcement of Mandela’s death, Chancellor Nicholas Dirks and UC President Janet Napolitano released statements honoring Mandela’s life.

“He was the ultimate teacher,” Napolitano said in a statement. “He not only changed the world — he taught us how to live together. All of us were his students.”

On Thursday, Dirks asked academic leaders to begin working on an event, to be put on in the spring, that will celebrate and explore Mandela’s life.

“Today, we are all part of a global community united in grief and reverence for a man whose clarity of moral purpose and extraordinary perseverance brought freedom to the oppressed,” Dirks said in the statement. “At Berkeley, we also remember the special ties that will forever bind our campus to this man and his movement.”

The student anti-apartheid movement has roots at UC Berkeley, where the student government voted in the 1980s to divest from South Africa. Upon receiving immense pressure from faculty and students campaigning against apartheid, the UC Board of Regents voted to divest from South Africa in 1986. The city of Berkeley also divested from the region — one of the first U.S. cities to do so.

Hart said that the student movement mobilized and informed a lot of young people about the situation across the globe and that they, in turn, played a crucial role in educating their parents.

“The broader process of self-educating that students went through was enormously important and really did help contribute (to the movement),” she said.

CalSERVE, the ASUC’s oldest existing political party, was formed in 1984 in opposition to apartheid-era South Africa. The party plans to discuss how to pay tribute to Mandela, said CalSERVE Senator Briana Mullen.

“Mandela’s passing is very tragic for all of us but also an important reminder of the work that he did,” Mullen said. “From the stories I’ve heard, (students) really found him to be someone that they felt they could fight for, even a thousand miles away.”

In his statement, Dirks reflected on a 1990 speech by Mandela given at the Oakland Coliseum to a crowd of about 60,000 people in which the revolutionary said that Campaign Against Apartheid, a former UC Berkeley student group, significantly helped quicken the end of South Africa’s white-minority rule.

“That recognition highlights what is, in my opinion, one of Berkeley’s proudest moments,” Dirks said in the statement. “Words alone cannot pay adequate homage to an extraordinary life that so deeply altered the course of history.”

Contact Jessie Lau at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @jessielau93.