How Nelson Mandela’s Spirit Can Inspire Us All (Guest Blog)

Ordinary people can be extraordinary if they’re willing to fight for their rights

Our future can be the best of times or the worst of times.  

We can learn from the South African experience and make major systemic changes that may appear near impossible, but are achievable and are already happening as models. Yup. We can still do it all and it’s not too late.

Because of his passing Thursday, we are all re-visiting the history of South Africa and how the incomparable Nelson Mandela was crucial in the peaceful transition from the brutal Apartheid state of South Africa to a stable democracy. Everything we hear and see about what an amazing human being and leader Mandela was is all true and more.  

Also read: Nelson Mandela Dead at 95

He was the man who led a non-violent transition to democracy that had all the ingredients of a violent civil war or war of liberation and potential brutal payback after the revolution that has unfortunately happened so many times in the world.

We were reminded how Mandela, who was in jail for 27 years, could forgive the people who unjustly put him there. When working with several Nobel Prize Laureates like Rev. Desmond Tutu on, I have been continually astounded how forgiveness is central to their philosophy and action.

Yet in the 1960s, almost no one thought a peaceful transition to democracy in South Africa was possible, including Mandela. But something happened that changed all that and it can and is happening now. Those of you who were in college in the 1970’s and 1980’s may know about this but others may not.

Also see: Nelson Mandela Death: The Anti-Apartheid Freedom Fighter’s Life in Pictures 

Why did everyone believe the transition from Apartheid to freedom and justice for the majority of black Africans would be very violent? Because the white Afrikaners, descendants of Dutch imperialists, and the white English, were far outnumbered. The Afrikaners knew damn well that if there were ever a true democracy, they would be voted out by the large majority. 

The brutal Afrikaners were convinced that if the black Africans got the vote, they would take over and treat the Afrikaners the way they had treated the black Africans. From the Pass Laws to the Sharpeville Massacre, to imprisoning Mandela for 27 years on Robben Island — the Afrikaners projected and rationalized that formerly oppressed people might resort to violent payback and ‘drive them into the sea.” 

So how did South Africa become what President Mandela termed “the Rainbow Nation” with Africans, Afrikaners, English and Indians living side by side? It is far from utopia still, but certainly a non-violent democracy on the right path.

Also read: Idris Elba, Morgan Freeman React to Nelson Mandela Death

After the Sharpeville Massacre even Mandela, an attorney, went underground as a African National Congress (ANC) leader realizing that armed struggle may be necessary because the Afrikaners were so brutal and had zero interest in anything but oppressing the Africans by whatever means available.

So why wasn’t there a violent civil war, revolution or brutal payback from the new regime in South Africa? In addition to all the heroic struggles that Mandela, the ANC, and the Africans engaged in — they got a lot of help from around the world. People throughout the world became educated about South Africa and organized to change it.

Economic pressure in the form of divestitures, sanctions and political pressure from other countries and religious leaders were a more powerful force than hundreds of years of racism and fear. By 1990 the pressure was so great that Mandela was let out of prison and within a few years he was democratically elected as the President of South Africa.

Also see: Oprah Winfrey Says Goodbye to Nelson Mandela: ‘My Hero’ 

The short of it is that divesture of South African investments and economic boycotts and sanctions led by African Americans, university students, unions, religious leaders, writers, musicians and actors prevailed — economic survival trumped Afrikaner racism.

Some parallels might be drawn with an extremely different situation in Iran, but nonetheless the intractable regimes in both countries have been forced by economic sanctions.    

Much of it started at American universities. When Rev. Gladstone Ntlabati came from South Africa to Cornell in the spring of 1969 (where my father, Doug Dowd, taught economic history,, the visiting South African gave a very impassioned speech to a couple hundred of us outside the Student Union.

We were all so moved and began to fully comprehend how bad the conditions were under the Apartheid regime. My blood boiled when he told us about the police repression including the Sharpeville Massacre in which 69 people were killed, many shot in the back, when protesting the “pass laws” which restricted the movement of black South Africans.

Also read: Nelson Mandela Death: How the TV Networks Are Covering (Updated)

When he spoke about the dire poverty and the near slave-like labor conditions and how the Dutch Afrikaners and English denied the native black South African majority all forms of democracy from freedom of speech to the right to vote, one of the black female students called out: “Sounds familiar. Just like they did to our folks here.”

Our group was so moved by Rev. Ntlabati that we arranged for him to speak several more times and within a week, a couple thousand people found out how bad conditions in South Africa were. Through research we discovered that “liberal” Cornell was hypocritically profiting from the racist regime. The Cornell Board and the Chase Manhattan Bank Board were interlocked and both were making big profits in Apartheid South Africa.  

President James Perkins and the Cornell administration responded by having an official symposium on the subject at which they gave lip service to being opposed to apartheid which only pissed people off more. 

We continued to organize around getting Cornell to divest from South Africa and the black students (there were only 165 of them out of 12,000 students) led the fight to have more admissions and hence greater representation at Cornell and a Black Studies Department at Cornell.  

Also see: President Obama on Nelson Mandela: ‘An Example That All Humanity Can Aspire To’ 

That led to the black students occupying the Student Union on Parents’ Weekend and when some white students planned to attack the building that night with their hunting guns — the black students, with our help, armed themselves in self-defense. This naturally became the top news story in the nation. No one was hurt and the entire Cornell Community met for the next few weeks to discuss what happened. 

Cornell and hundreds of universities ended up divesting from South Africa throughout the 1970’s and 80’s. As it turns out unions, pension funds, local governments all had investments in South Africa and many of them divested also.

All this was fueled by massive education about the conditions. Pre-internet when it was much harder than it is now, scores of musicians and artists joined the cause and helped, as well.

Right now, America and the planet are in a major time of systemic change — energy, education, the economy, environment, communication, health care — you name it. Everything will be much different in just a few years. It is our choice whether we have a better education system in America or not. If we don’t make dramatic changes — you can kiss much of our future goodbye and bring on the apocalypse zombies.  It is our choice whether we do fracking or more sustainable forms of energy which abound and are working so many places.

Also see: 9 of Hollywood’s Actors Who Portrayed Nelson Mandela

Education and organization are the key. A tad bit of leadership would help too. It is our choice whether the younger generation is hopeful about their future or not. I think we all know what happens when people — especially young people lack hope — it’s not just guys with guns going nuts. It’s extreme substance abuse and all kinds of terrible things that permeate every community in America right now regardless of class — the era of the moat around your castle protecting you is over.

One of the things those in the entertainment industry or even we at home on our computers can do more of is to create models of what is possible in the future — be it a meme, picture, video, TV show, movie or song about sustainable energy in an entertaining manner or bullet trains that get us places in a quarter the time of driving and often quicker than flying with all the airport hassles and time. We all see the video and go just like a great commercial: “Hey why aren’t we doing that…I want to ride on one of those.”

We have more power than anytime in history to make change. An individual can post something on Facebook that can go viral and educate and inspire us all.

Or maybe we want to ride off the cliff with the financial speculators or die of terminal boredom at our “day jobs” where we rarely get out of first gear and don’t use our human potential. Rise up achievers!

This is gonna be fun to live life large with our creative and entrepreneurial spirit engaged as we change the history of the world. Yet again.

The Spirit of Nelson Mandela will live forever. And so will ours.