On Thursday, during the last meeting of our Regional Cultures of Africa class at the University of Colorado, we will memorialize Mandela, who is popularly known in his home country of South Africa as "Madiba." We will celebrate his life, because his struggle for freedom was a centerpiece of the course. We read Mandela's autobiography, speeches and the surrounding history of apartheid. We will celebrate his life through sharing quotes from him and others about the struggle for freedom.
We will honor Mandela's life but avoid the temptation of hagiography. Mandela did not overthrow apartheid alone. During a 2011 Fulbright specialist assignment in South Africa, I learned more about the complex cast of characters who fought the anti-apartheid struggle when my host Sylvester Maphosa took me on a tour of the Hector Pieterson Museum, the Apartheid Museum, the District Six Museum and Freedom Park in South Africa. The Wall of Names at Freedom Park is a particularly powerful visual image. Chiseled on the wall are 80,000 names of those who have died in the various South African struggles. Mandela reminded us not to credit him alone when he said, "I would like to be remembered not as anyone unique or special, but as part of a great team in this country that has struggled for many years, for decades and even centuries."
Because part of being a student is learning to think critically about the world, Mandela's death is a teachable moment. For my class, this means not just seeing a single story of struggle against apartheid, but seeing Mandela as a placeholder for diving through the almost infinitely complex narrative of apartheid and the struggle that overthrew it. Mandela's greatness as a leader lies ironically in his realization that a good leader is better follower, and in so leading and following his people, apartheid was overthrown.
Through celebrating Madiba's life, students are able to learn about a familiar struggle (like the U.S. Civil Rights Movement headed by Martin Luther King) in an unfamiliar environment, letting them know that freedom is something to be cherished and not taken for granted. Mandela is that moment for our class.
Laura DeLuca an anthropology lecturer for Farrand Residential Academic Program (RAP), Global Studies RAP and the Sustainability RAP at the University of Colorado.