“During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die. The invincibility of our cause and the certainty of our final victory are the impenetrable armour of those who consistently uphold their faith in freedom and justice in spite of political persecution.”
– Nelson Mandela
Following Oprah Winfrey’s visit to Cambridge the other day, I was coming up with a mental list of Harvard’s most elevating and atrocious honorary degree recipients — and for the record, I don’t think Oprah belongs in either category — and of course my mind immediately turned to Nelson Mandela as the shining examplar of the former, not for anything he actually said, though you can decide for yourself here, but for his ineffable moral ballast. Such is his gravitational pull that the university deviated from its usual protocol, which stipulates that honorary degree recipients be physically present at commencement to receive their award, and allowed Mandela to pick up his degree at a separate occasion when he was touring North America. Only two others have received that honor in Harvard’s almost-400-year history: a fellow called George Washington and a guy by the name of Winston Churchill.
I know it’s a tired cliche to cite Nelson Mandela as a personal hero, but he is mine – and has been for as long as I can remember, certainly going back to my sophomore year at Harvard when Bishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa came to the University, following the award of his Nobel prize, and spoke at Memorial Church.
I was an intern at the Harvard Foundation for Intercultural and Race Relations at the time, and thus one of the lucky students who shook Tutu’s hand (see photo at left) and felt the glow of his melting smile. We admired his humble courage and were lifted by his presence. But I think even then we knew that Bishop Tutu was a proxy for the real giant among men, Nelson Mandela, the person we were certain (at least I was certain) that the world would never have the privilege of knowing beyond prison walls.
(If I can digress for a moment, I think it’s impossible to overstate how little we thought the world was capable of changing back then. Yes, yes, Sandra Day O’Connor, the anti-apartheid movement, and so on. But virtually nobody back in the early ’80s, including experts, could have imagined a world in which the Soviet Union would topple in the quite-near future.)
In any event, just a few years after Bishop Tutu’s visit to Harvard, I was riding in a taxi in New York City with an African driver when news came on the radio of Nelson Mandela’s release from prison. I remember the day quite well because I’d gone to New York for a funeral and it was also my best friend’s birthday. My driver was from East Africa, if I recall correctly, and we had been talking about my own experience in Kenya in the summer of 1985. Mandela’s release from prison had been in the works for some time and it wasn’t totally unexpected at that point. Nonetheless, the news was truly and completely shaking. There were no handy gadgets back then, of course, so I didn’t share my excitement via cell tower. Instead, I suggested the driver pull over to the side of the street, and he did that and whispered, “Oh my Lord” in his soft lilting accent, and we both proceeded to cry.