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Southwestern University History Professor Talks About Nelson Mandela’s Life and Legacy

Thomas McClendon, a professor of history at Southwestern University, specializes in the history of South Africa and the anti-apartheid movement. Here are some of his thoughts about Nelson Mandela, who died Dec. 5, 2013, at the age of 95:

“Nelson Mandela was one of the most iconic and transformational figures of the latter half of the 20th century. Ordinary people make history in their daily actions and collective struggles, but some leaders come to shape and symbolize the movements ordinary people carry out. Mandela was one of those leaders as the face of the anti-apartheid struggle and the key leader of the African National Congress (ANC) during the transformation from apartheid to a new South Africa.

Mandela belongs, along with a few other crucially important figures, to the great sweep of decolonization that began after World War II with the independence of India and Pakistan. He is the equal of such outstanding leaders as Mohandas Gandhi, who galvanized the independence struggle in colonial India, and Kwame Nkrumah, who led the first sub-Saharan African nation, Ghana, to independence in 1957 and who became a resilient voice for the liberation of the remainder of the continent.

Like many other leaders of independence movements in Africa, Mandela and his generation shook up moderate and elitist organizations advocating for Africans ruled by empires or (as in South Africa) by white settlers. They helped steer these organizations toward more direct confrontation with states resisting the extension of rights to Africans. Especially in the settler-dominated colonies, and the settler state of South Africa, this generation also led their people into armed struggle to secure those rights. Mandela, later known as a leader devoted to peaceful transformation, helped create the armed wing of the ANC in 1961, and was its first commander. For all his efforts to undo apartheid, he spent 27 years in prison.

While still in prison, Mandela helped steer the ANC and the apartheid government toward negotiations. After being released in 1990, he proved to be a very skillful lead negotiator on the ANC’s behalf, and helped craft the constitutional compromises that led to the transition away from apartheid. South Africa had its first democratic elections in 1994, and Mandela became the president under a democratic constitution. During his presidency, he continued to be a prominent symbol for racial reconciliation, famously donning the uniform of the theretofore apartheid-identified Springboks (the South African national team) during the Rugby World Cup in 1995. His administration also fostered the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which revealed some of the darkest secrets of apartheid without devolving into a search for vengeance. Mandela also set an important precedent by leaving office after just one term, unlike the unfortunate ‘lifetime tenure’ record of so many independence leaders around the world.”

Professor McClendon is the co-editor of the forthcoming book, The South Africa Reader: History, Culture, Politics, which will be published in December 2013 by Duke University Press. He is available for interviews about Mandela and his legacy. Professor McClendon may be reached at 512-863-1414 or mcclendt@southwestern.edu.