If you became politically aware in the late 1970s, you became aware of a world in which no greater sustained evil existed than apartheid. There were other horrors, of course, but apartheid was insidious, entrenched, and total. It built a model of permanent exploitation and enforced it with violence. It classified human beings and forbade them from loving and living beside one another. Its apparatus of segregation, Bantustans, prisons, and immiseration abused dignity with systematic perversity. Its helmsmen spread violence across South Africa’s borders and spat in the face of a disapproving world.
If there was no greater evil than apartheid, there was no greater cause than that of those who fought it. And of the heroes of that movement, none epitomized it more completely than Nelson Mandela, whose dignity and revolutionary spirit radiated beyond the walls of the Robben Island prison and South Africa’s frontiers and into the global consciousness. We knew there were many others, too—the death of Steve Biko, when I was nearly 10, is one of my early, dim political memories; in time I would learn of Ruth First, Joe Slovo, Walter Sisulu, Thabo Mbeki, and so many more. But it took nothing away from anyone else to recognize that Mandela was special.
In 1985, when I entered university at Harvard, the American left was in shambles and college activism at a low ebb, but South Africa galvanized progressive energies. The idea of demanding that universities divest themselves of their holdings in companies that did business in South Africa was spreading. It provided a focused and coherent demand that justified action at the level of the university itself, alongside more general consciousness-raising. This demand, and with it a critical examination of all the university’s direct and indirect dealings in South Africa, mobilized as diverse a coalition of students as was possible in an Ivy League setting (and a more diverse one in public universities). They were not shopping for a chic cause conveniently distant from the scourges gathering on the Reagan-era home front. Perhaps some were—yet wittingly or not, they had chosen to involve themselves in the fight against the clearest, most total outrage of the era.
On our small, peripheral front in this battle, we—like many around the world—underwent our political education. Our own laughable tensions and schisms faintly echoed the serious ones—for instance between the African National Congress and the Pan-Africanist Congress of Azania—of which we learnt. Some of us went deeper and forged ties with freedom fighters, for instance at a conference in Michigan that gathered American and South African education activists. We, the only student delegation, paid for our travel in part with a wad of cash that Harvard’s dean of students, the late Archie C. Epps III, with whom we clashed regularly, handed me as a covert contribution to the struggle. The same year, the student Conservative Club invited to campus a South African diplomat, Duke Kent-Brown, whose speech we disrupted. Using slides, he presented a theory of petty (segregation) and greater (separation through the Bantustans) apartheid, and defended its merits with bluntness and belief. It was 1987, and as far as he was concerned, apartheid was still under construction, and the edifice would last forever.
It didn’t. Three years later, Mandela was free, and the rest is history and the present. We had made our tiny contribution to the struggle in what turned out to be, happily, its final stage. The generosity with which the freedom fighters we met or heard from welcomed these efforts, from variously-informed college kids and other self-appointed allies, only presaged the generosity that the freed Mandela would display toward all parties domestic and foreign. His demonstration of humanity was to many an education in itself, but it was really the final lesson in a political education centered on the imperative of revolution.
Mandela’s passing inevitably pulls the mind back to that political education—and to the very idea of a political education. It makes me glad that I had one at all, and grateful to the known and unknown soldiers of South Africa’s freedom struggle, from Mandela and the ANC leadership on down, for their role in shaping my generation’s understanding of purpose and struggle. Many of us failed to stay tuned to the message amid the cascading distractions of the globalized, hyper-mediated, wealth-fetishizing order that has ensued—one that has not spared South Africa either. Against all the noise and disappointments, Mandela, to the end, manifested a radical clarity. May we find, cherish, and act on our own radical clarity, now that Madiba has gone to the ancestors and we are alone.