My Mandela Memory

In 1985 or 1986, I took an amazing class called “The Politics of Race Domination in South Africa” taught by Wellington Nyangoni, a visiting professor from Brandeis. This was a tough class: the reading was challenging, graduate-level political science and Prof. Nyangoni had the old-school African intellectual style: brilliant, charismatic uncompromising, demanding, with no patience for sloppy thinking or fuzzy hoping. He didn’t care if you hung out at the shanty town for divestment (I did not—I was too busy studying); he wanted you to read and think and understand the systems of oppression, political and capital, that kept whites in power.

I remember a lot about that class, which was my first introduction to the ways in which corporate America was complicit in the very worst of the apartheid regime in South Africa.

I remember Professor Nyangoni pausing to tell a rare personal anecdote about his boyhood in what was then Rhodesia. He went to hear the President give a speech and, unable to see, climbed a tree. “Look at those monkeys!” said the President, pointing at him and his friends. As racism goes, this is small potatoes, but for me—for the twelve of us in that seminar—Professor Nyangoni was a giant, a professor, commanding and worthy of our utmost respect. Hearing that story from his lips affected me deeply.

But, with the passing of Nelson Mandela, I also remember the only thing he said to us that was probably wrong.

We were a dozen hopeful privileged young women sitting in a classroom at Wellesley. We listened to The Specials’ “Free Nelson Mandela” and believed in divestment. But Professor Nyangoni warned us that Mandela would never become president. That man, he said, is a warrior, a guerrilla fighter, and a rebel. He is great at that, but he has been in prison for over twenty years. The skills needed for a president, when apartheid falls, just don’t match up with the skills of such a man. That made sense to me. It seemed like adult wisdom. I didn’t want to believe it, but it seemed right.

So, when Nelson Mandela did become President, I thought back to that class and my professor’s very wise prediction.

Oh.

This was indeed a great man.

May he rest in peace.