From his prison cell on a small island off the coast of South Africa, Nelson Mandela revolutionized UCLA’s impact on and the UC’s involvement in, the anti-apartheid movement during the 1980s.
Mandela, South Africa’s first democratically elected black president, died on Thursday at 95 years old. The revolutionary leader worked as a lawyer and political activist behind the anti-apartheid movement, which sought to end the existing system of racial segregation in South Africa.
Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years for charges including incitement of worker strikes and illegal travel out of the country. During his time in prison he continued to advocate and work for the anti-apartheid movement. He then was elected president from 1994 to 1999 and worked on improving South Africa’s constitution to provide new rights and freedoms to minorities.
“He was the ultimate teacher. He not only changed the world, he taught us how to live together. All of us were his students,” said University of California President Janet Napolitano in a statement on Dec. 5.
History professor Ned Alpers was one of the faculty members involved in the UC divestment campaign at UCLA during the 1980s, which urged the University to withdraw investments from South African companies that supported the apartheid.
“It was very exciting to see young people get so excited and passionate about a cause,” Alpers said.
Alpers said he believes Mandela was a major reason why people were so involved in the anti-apartheid movement worldwide.
“Mandela was that individual, that martyr for the cause. He was the person people identified with,” Alpers said.
He added that part of Mandela’s legacy is the way he served as a role model for others. He said that Mandela was never power hungry, and Mandela’s decision to retire after only five years in power demonstrates his ability to recognize when to hand over control and continue his legacy through others.
“He came out of 27 years of prison with such a generous spirit,” Alpers said.
Students across the country and the UC system became invested in the anti-apartheid movement, said Edmond Keller, a political science professor at UCLA. Keller said there were frequent student demonstrations on UC campuses, including hunger strikes, to protest the apartheid.
William Worger, a history professor at UCLA, said Mandela was a critical figure not only in South Africa, but also in the United States for his role in fighting against racial discrimination.
Worger was present for Mandela’s 1990 speech at the Los Angeles Coliseum, which he gave just months after he was released from prison. In it, Mandela urged his audience to continue worldwide support for South African racial equality.
“The speech was personally profoundly emotional – just being in his physical presence, he was free,” Worger said.
Alpers also heard the 1990 speech surrounded by tens of thousands of people, and said the experience was electrifying.
In 1994, four years after his release from prison, Mandela was elected president.
While he was in office, Mandela created the Government of National Unity, a body aimed at incorporating viewpoints of various political parties to overcome segregation that existed during apartheid.
“The world has rarely seen an individual of the character and commitment to human kind that we had in Mandela,” Keller said.