In 1978 I became involved in the Anti-Apartheid Movement. I can’t remember why now. I probably joined my friend Dave Moy at a meeting. Dave went on to lead a number of inner-city organizations in Boston, and has always had a big influence on me.
In the next months I heard about Nelson Mandela, who was characterized by the South African government as a terrorist. I didn’t know what to think, although I certainly didn’t trust the government. A friend of mine, an activist graduate student and refugee from South Africa, gave me a book of Mandela’s writings and speeches which I still have. This passage from Mandela’s speech at the Rivonia Trial struck me:
“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 to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
Mandela gave this speech just prior to his sentencing. The likely outcome was that he would be hanged, and the speech made this outcome more likely. Yet this man facing death talks of his fight against domination and discrimination of any sort, his cherished hope for democracy, freedom, harmony and equal opportunity for all. Would I have said these words under such circumstances, words which I believe? I doubted my own courage to do so.
Mandela was sentenced to a life term to be served in the Robben Island Prison. He was at Robben Island at the time I played my tiny part in the global anti-apartheid movement – helping to organize student demonstrations and a strike, testifying at the UN Special Committee Against Apartheid, co-authoring reports on university investment policy with trustees and faculty, helping drive Brandeis University to ultimately divest of stocks in companies that strengthened the apartheid regime.
I have met Nelson Mandela many times in my life’s journey. Mandela lives in men and women who stand up for the marginalized and voiceless. Mandela lives in people that have suffered violence yet advocate peace, and those who muster optimism in the most fatal of circumstances. Mandela lives in artists and educators, in advocates for free knowledge, and in those fighting for a clean environment and healthy communities.
m/Oppenheim was founded to support the Mandelas of this world. It is the very least we could do.
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