Olupona on Mandela: 'Man of the People'

Olupona-Mandela
Jacob K. Olupona. Photo: Matt Craig

Jacob K. Olupona, Professor of African Religious Traditions (HDS) and Professor of African and African American Studies (FAS), writes about Nelson Mandela's impact on Harvard, Nigeria, and the wider world.

I admire Nelson Mandela. He asked hard and troubling questions, particularly those pertaining to the conduct of the state and attitude of his fellow African leaders regarding the destiny of their respective nations.

While not claiming to be an angel himself, he demanded that the nation maintain high moral ground in statecraft in order to fulfill the aspirations of the citizens they are honored to govern. A case in point occurred when in a conversation with a Nigerian diplomat in South Africa. Mandela asked: "Why is it that Nigeria, which has contributed so many resources and money to freedom movements in South Africa, has also become a nation without a rudder?"

He questioned how Nigeria had degenerated to such a state of malaise, as evidenced in crises such as the Boko Haram conflict. However, Mandela quickly offered a solution, noting that Nigerians held the answer themselves. He suggested that Nigerians ought to demand more from their leaders in the realms of accountability and initiative.

In 1998, Mandela was bestowed an honorary degree by Harvard University. On this occasion, it is said that several university officials inquired what the institution might do for the newly independent South Africa. Unlike other leaders who would ask for silver and gold, Mandela requested that Harvard assist South Africa in training the nation's youth, particularly the underprivileged majority.

To the credit of this university, more than 200 South African fellows have benefited from this initiative, including Zolisa Shokane, who ultimately pursued a master of theological studies degree at HDS after her fellowship years at Harvard College. I recall how, upon her graduation, Shokane expressed her gratitude for the fellowship and the opportunity to earn her degree from Harvard.

Third, Mandela always insisted that work towards social justice be pursued with great urgency. This pursuit continues to be true now more than ever as South Africa remains a nation reeling with violent civil and social conflicts. Political independence for the black majority notwithstanding, these crises include economic dependency, corruption, gender inequality, and xenophobia, given the bias towards immigrants. We must recognize the importance of individual leaders as well as the work of the collective in social and political movements for liberation and equality.

Indeed, Nelson Mandela will be remembered as a man of the people, a great prince. As written in Ecclesiasticus:

As father of generations; one who ruled his kingdom, and was renowned for his power, his counsel and his prophecies; a man who led the people in their deliberations, wise in his words of instructions; a man honored in his generation, a glory in his own time; one who has left a name, so that others may declare his praise; a man whose posterity will continue forever, and whose glory will not be blotted out; may his body be buried in peace and his name continue to live on in all future generations. (Ecclesiasticus 44:1)

Find out what other HDS faculty had to say about the passing of Nelson Mandela.