The following is an abridged version of a lecture given at a memorial service to honour Nelson Mandela at Wellesley College, Wellesley, Massachusetts, on December 12.
I am pleased to share in this tribute to this great man—perhaps the greatest man—of the 20th century, Nelson Mandela. While there are those who will praise him to the skies—and they must—I prefer to spend the time allotted to me on this programme to say what Mandela and the struggle of the people of South Africa meant to me and what we can learn from the life of this great man. It is always easy to praise men after they have passed and after they have achieved fame and sometimes fortune. However, it is always more important to put your life on the line when things are rough and when it really matters than to wait until that persons dies or the struggle is won to declare how much that person meant to you when you did precious little to assist the cause while he was alive.
The 1960s and the 1970s were violent decades not only in the US but also in the Caribbean and on the African continent. One year after I arrived in the US in 1964 Malcolm X was violently murdered at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem. It was a sign of things to come. Four years later, Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. During this period the struggle for black liberation was also taking place on the African continent in places such as Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Angola, and South Africa.
In 1975, I arrived in Athens, Ohio, having completed my PhD at Cornell University, Ithaca, NY. There I joined a small group of comrades who were trying to tell the world about the struggle that was taking place in South Africa to free the South Africans from the grip of apartheid. Among this noble band of warriors were Lindiwe Mabuza, who eventually became South Africa’s first black ambassador to the Federal Republic of Germany; Barbara Masekela who eventually became Mandela’s chief of staff in 1995 and served as South Africa’s ambassador to France from 1995–98; and Cosmo Pieterse, a playwright, poet and literary critic, a professor at Ohio University and who was denied re-entry to the US, allegedly for being a “suspected communist.” There in that tiny Ohio town we did everything in our power to support the work of the freedom fighters on the continent.
While we were working in Athens to support the freedom fighters of South Africa, Alfred Nzo, the former secretary general of the ANC, toured the US to win support for the cause of his people. I met him at Athens and, a few days later, heard him lecture at Cambridge, Massachusetts. At Harvard University he pleaded with his audience to support the legitimate right of South Africans to be freed from the apartheid regime that held our brothers in South Africa. Only about 75 people, including myself, attended that lecture. Twenty-two years later, when Mandela received his honorary doctorate from Harvard, close to 20,000 persons were there to honour him. Mandela was famous then. It was safe to honour him and lift him up to the skies.
In 1977, I had another opportunity to show my support for the liberation of the people of South Africa. The Harvard Crimson, the Harvard University student newspaper, on March 27, carried the following story: “Nearly 300 demonstrators protesting white minority rule in South Africa at Government Centre Plaza on Saturday afternoon were forced to move their rally to Boston Common, when a confrontation with about 15 men erupted in violence. Eyewitnesses said the men identified themselves as members of the South Boston Marshals, a vigilante-style group which grew up two years ago in the wake of the start of the public school desegregation. They reportedly approached the group shouting racial epithets; some brandished sticks.”
This was my first encounter with white racism in Boston. The Harvard Crimson noted that our march was undertaken to oppose “US complicity with the South African regime as well as to demand black majority rule and freedom for South African prisoners. When the South Boston Marshals threatened us, we linked hands together and chanted: “No to racism, from Boston to South Africa.” The Crimson concluded its report with the following observation: “After the rally reconvened back at the Common, demonstrators listened to a series of speakers including Selwyn Cudjoe, assistant professor of Afro-American Studies, Willard Johnson, political science professor at MIT, and Tsietis Mashinini, the Soweto township student leader who fled South Africa four months ago. Mashinini urged the group to “stop intellectualising about the isms involved in the South African situation, and work harder to educate and take action.” I was not just a participant in this awe-inspiring event. I led the march and carried the banner, as the photograph in the Crimson demonstrates.
In 1979 the issue of the liberation of South African people took a more decisive turn as students’ demonstrations against apartheid and the issue of divestment from South Africa became more urgent. On March 7, 1979, several Harvard faculty members including myself demanded that Harvard University divest its holdings from South Africa and signed an open letter to that effect.
On March 13, 1979, I addressed the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Harvard University, and called upon the university to divest its holdings in South Africa. In urging the university to do so, I argued that the university’s investments in South Africa provided the necessary capital for the Union of South Africa to continue its policy of apartheid which made the university culpable in the enslavement of millions of South Africans.
In my speech I drew upon Hinton Rowan Helper’s The Impending Crisis of the South: How to Meet It (1857), a book that helped to elect Abraham Lincoln president in 1860 and considered next in importance to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) as an abolitionist work. Helper predicted the impending crisis in the US which turned out to be the Civil War, if the question of slavery was not resolved. I sensed an impending crisis in South Africa if justice and fairness were not granted to the non-white population and quoted Helper’s injunction to the anti-slavery advocates as another way in which the people of the US could respond to apartheid in South Africa.
It is easy to praise a great man when he is gone. It is much more difficult to stand up with him and support a cause when issues are on the line.
May Nelson Mandela’s soul rest peacefully with his ancestors and may he always be a beacon that beckons us on to better things.
• Dr Cudjoe is the Margaret E. Deffenbaugh and LeRoy T. Calson Professor in Comparative Literature and Professor of Africana Studies at Wellesley College.