When Nelson Mandela visited Harvard University 15 years ago on his last official trip to the United States as South Africa’s president, I had the good fortune to be in the audience. Nothing prepares you for the transformative experience of being in Mandela’s presence.
As I recounted after returning from Cambridge to Charlotte, Mandela’s visit to receive an honorary degree in a special ceremony came at the beginning of my year-long Nieman fellowship at Harvard. That got my academic adventure and respite from work off to a very good start.
Mandela didn’t just ooze charisma and charm. He was a light-bulb of warmth and brightness. He had that undefinable quality that makes you feel better about yourself and the world – and makes you want to be a better person and do more to make the world better.
In my mind’s eye, I can still see Mandela that September day at Harvard. My long ago written words capture the image: “Tall, lanky and regal, the old man made his way slowly to the podium. He stood as straight and firm as a pillar. His gray tightly curled hair was in a neat cap. And his smooth caramel skin shone. Under sunny skies and to thunderous applause, the 80-year-old man stood silently and smiled. He looked like royalty. He was.”
Mandela was accompanied by his bride of only a few months, Graça Machel, then 52, who was the widow of another president of an African country, Samora Machel of Mozambique. That surprising late-in-life romance only enhanced Mandela’s allure.
Like the events following his death last week, Mandela’s Harvard visit was a festive one with dancers, drummers and singers performing before he spoke. After some remarks by others, Neil L. Rudenstine, Harvard’s president at the time, bestowed the honorary degree noting the apt citation: “Conscience of a people, soul of a nation, he has brought forth freedom from the crucible of oppression and inspired, by his courageous example, the better angels of our nature.”
Then Mandela took the stage.
At the time, I wondered if Mandela knew how ironic his visit was to some. Harvard’s relationship with the oppressive apartheid regime in South Africa was problematic. It took years of prodding, pressure and protests to get the university to pull its investments from companies doing business in South Africa. It wasn’t without reason that Archbishop Desmond Tutu issued this plea when he visited the campus in 1985: “You know something, we’re going to be free. ... And when we get to the other side of this liberation game, we would like to be able to say ‘... Harvard University was with us.’”
By the end of the 1980s, after students built a shantytown in front of Harvard’s University Hall, which stayed up for several months, and following other protests, the school had completely ended financial ties to South Africa.
Mandela, of course, would speak of none of that history. Maybe it was more evidence of his monumental forgiving nature. But even today, his speech resonates as a marker of our times.
After taking note of the “great compliment” it was for him to be conferred a degree in a specially convened convocation – something Harvard had done for only a dozen other people including George Washington and Winston Churchill – Mandela said, in part:
“If in these latter years of a life lived in pursuit of equality, we [South Africans] can at last look upon our own country as one in which citizens, regardless of race, gender, or creed, share equal political rights and opportunities for development, we do so with great gratitude towards the millions upon millions all around the world who materially and morally supported our struggle for freedom and justice.
“Together with those freedom- and justice-loving citizens of the world, we do at the same time, however, note that at the end of this century – a century which humanity entered with such high hopes for progress – the world is still beset by great disparities between the rich and the poor, both within countries and between different parts of the world.
“If in individual life we all may reach that part of the long walk where the opportunity is granted to retire to some rest and tranquility, for humanity the walk to freedom and equality seems, alas, still to be a long one ahead.
“... The greatest single challenge facing our globalized world is to combat and eradicate its disparities. While in all parts of the world progress is being made in entrenching democratic forms of governance, we constantly need to remind ourselves that the freedoms which democracy brings will remain empty shells if they are not accompanied by real and tangible improvements in the material lives of of the millions of ordinary citizens of those countries.
“Where men and women and children go burdened with hunger, suffering from preventable diseases, languishing in ignorance and illiteracy, or finding themselves bereft of decent shelter, talk of democracy and freedom that does not recognize these material aspects, can ring hollow and erode confidence exactly in those values we seek to promote. Hence [it is] our universal obligation towards building a world in which there shall be greater equality amongst nations and amongst citizens of nations.
“Mr. President, we accept this great honor bestowed upon us today as a symbol of how South Africa and the United States, Africa and the West, the developing and the developed world, are reaching out and joining hands as partners in building a world order that equally benefits all the nations and people of the world.”
Those words echo with relevance today.
At the end of such ceremonies, most world leaders would be ushered away. Not Mandela. On that sunny fall afternoon in 1998, he talked to as many as wanted to talk who were still on the dais, including the dancers, drummers and singers. He shook hands and gave hugs. And as he did so, I walked with a few others to the edge of the stage to get a closer look, and take in the moment.
Then Mandela did a surprising thing. He turned and came to the edge of the stage toward us lingerers, waving and shouting out greetings. I (and others) shouted out a humbling, welcoming response. He smiled that captivating smile and seemed to look each of us in the eye, mesmerizing and lifting us up in the moment.
Then he was gone.
And now, he really is gone. No one can replace him. He will be missed.