Mandela remembered as 'conscience' of South Africa

Elon University faculty, staff and students with ties to South Africa reflect on the passing of Nelson Mandela, a global leader whose humility and selflessness helped his nation heal from the ravages of apartheid.

Activist. Revolutionary. Philanthropist. President. Statesman. Nobel Peace Prize winner.

Or, simply, “father of the nation.”

Former South African President Nelson Mandela’s death marks the final chapter in a life dedicated to equality, freedom, justice, healing and reconciliation in a nation that for generations battled the demons of apartheid. Though he had been in poor health for years, Mandela’s passing on Dec. 5, 2013, reverberated in all corners of the world, including Elon University’s campus.

“He was selfless. He was not a man enamored with the trappings of office – the celebrity, the money, the power,” said Associate Professor Prudence Layne, who leads an annual “The Call of South Africa” study abroad course that visits sites important to Mandela’s life. “That’s the true mark of a leader, to stay grounded, to stay humble, to stay focused on the cause, which should be the people.”

Layne, who has taught the Winter Term course each year since 2007, said it was Mandela’s humility and his ability to subsume any ego that made him a figure of immeasurable esteem around the globe. She said his passing may serve as an opportunity for members of the campus community to engage in meaningful discussions about diversity, equality, oppression and racism. “Death,” she said, “gives us a chance to pause and reflect.”

WATCH: Associate Professor Prudence Layne speaks with WFMY News 2 about Mandela

Mandela rose to prominence in the mid 20th century as a lawyer with the African National Congress, and his arrest in 1962 on charges of conspiracy to overthrow the government led him to spend much of the next three decades in prison. Upon his release in 1990, Mandela worked to end the apartheid system, and he was elected South Africa’s first black president in 1994.

What strikes many observers was Mandela’s willingness to forgive. He never sought retribution against his white oppressors, opting instead to find reconciliation through a commission that examined previous human rights abuses against blacks.

“Mandela gave me my country. He is, and has been for a very long time, the heart and soul of South Africa and a huge part of the foundation from which we’ve been able to function,” said Emma Burress, the university’s interim assistant director of study abroad. “When you go through something like apartheid, to come out the other end as positively and with as little bitterness as he did is unfathomable.

“It was a remarkable gift that he gave every single South African and everyone in the world. And it’s a hard thing to think about him not being there as the physical conscience of a nation.”

WATCH: Emma Burress, interim assistant director of study abroad, and Elon junior Stefan Fortmann speak with WFMY News 2 about Mandela

Two university students from South Africa also shared reflections about the death of their former president.

Nosipho Shangase, a freshman International Fellow and recipient of the university’s Susan Scholarship, called Mandela “one of the greatest people to ever walk on this planet.” She described him as a man who knew when to fight and when to make peace with his enemies.

She also credited Mandela with convincing Oprah Winfrey to build a school in South Africa. The Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls opened in 2007, and it was the institution from which Shangase graduated.

“Because of him, I am where I am today,” she said of Mandela. “Because of him, I have a bright future. As a South African, now it’s my turn to carry his legacy.”

Stefan Fortmann, a junior and member of the men’s tennis team, said Mandela’s political influence extended well beyond his four years as president, and that people can learn about perseverance by studying his life.

“His story is a great story of hope. If you think of the position he was in under apartheid, as a black person, and to think of what he achieved, it seems impossible,” Fortmann said. “If you were in his shoes, with the dreams he had, those were bold dreams. But he didn’t stop going after them. Whatever came in the way, he didn’t give up! … That sheer determination of getting to your goal – not letting anything getting you down – is something so powerful.”