Loyola Magazine

Professor, active in anti-apartheid movement, reflects on Mandela’s life

Former South African president dies at 95; African history scholar Elizabeth Schmidt, Ph.D., discusses his legacy

In 1993, Loyola University Maryland history professor Elizabeth Schmidt, Ph.D., met Nelson Mandela during his second U.S. tour after he was released from prison in 1990. She calls it an incredible moment in her life.

“I remember his warmth as a human being,” Schmidt said. “He must have shaken the hand of tens of thousands of strangers after his release. He looked each person in the eye and smiled and said, ‘thank you.’”

Schmidt was invited to the special event in Washington, D.C., because of her decades-long involvement in the anti-apartheid movement in the United States. It started a few years out of college while she was working at a D.C. think tank and had the opportunity to write and publish Decoding Corporate Camouflage: U.S. Business Support for Apartheid, her exposé of U.S. corporate support for apartheid in strategic economic sectors including petroleum, computers, and motor vehicles. She traveled to South Africa on assignment for the Catholic liberation theology magazine Maryknoll after she published the book, only to face harassment from the South African security police. Later, her book was banned in South Africa and she was forbidden from returning to the country.

Undeterred, Schmidt conducted her doctoral research in African history in Zimbabwe just over the northern border of South Africa, where she was able to connect with South African exiles, many of whom were members of the banned African National Congress.

“Mandela for us was a very, very revered figure, but we didn’t know much about him because there was a blackout on news about him while he was in prison,” said Schmidt. “It was illegal to quote him, it was illegal to publish any of his writings. But we knew what he stood for before his imprisonment.”

Schmidt offered Loyola magazine the following reflections on Mandela’s life and legacy.

What distinguished Mandela as a leader when he was president of South Africa?

The fact that he was so dedicated to creating a non-racial society. There had been much fear about what would happen to whites if the African National Congress came to power, and he made it clear that the ANC welcomed everybody, that a true democracy was inclusive. It wasn’t just about elections in which the African majority would be dominant. It was about respect for human rights, political self determination, the right of all people to live a dignified existence with food, clothing, shelter, and work.

Those who knew Mandela always say that he led from behind, that he was like a shepherd with his flock, that he knew the right direction in which to go, but he was a great listener and guided people not by top-down mandate but by encouraging them and educating them – creating a situation where they wound up wanting to do just things.

How did he work to unify societies in South Africa?

As president and leader of the first post-apartheid government, Mandela fought against racism and for national reconciliation and made it very clear that this was an inclusive struggle embracing black, white, mixed race, and Asian populations, that it wasn’t a matter of turning the table and imposing black domination.

For example, in exchange for the truth that exposed the crimes of apartheid, the new government granted amnesty to many people who had perpetrated crimes. Some people found that objectionable, but Mandela and the African National Congress believed that this was the only way to proceedto be cleansed by the truth and not to set up Nuremburg-like trials that might further divide the people. He strongly believed that all South Africans were needed to rebuild the country.

How can Mandela’s legacy continue to drive positive change in the future?

When I think about Mandela along with Martin Luther King, two great human beings, I worry about the tendency to sanitize history by glossing over the hard things they had to say about our society. We should not focus only on their sentiments that “we’ll walk hand-in-hand together” and “we shall overcome.” Those are important messages, but both men also spoke out against wars of imperialism, they spoke out against economic injustice. They were talking not only about political rights and civil rights, but also about fundamental human rights.

Both men felt very strongly about these issues, which are often omitted from their legacies. South Africa has many, many problems facing it right now. It is plagued by intense poverty and economic inequality, inadequate education and health care, and high crime rates. These are legacies of apartheid. These ills did not end in 1994 with the first democratic, non-racial election.

These ongoing problems concerned Mandela deeply and it seems to me that some of these issues are forgotten in our discussion now. There is still a long, long way to go before South Africa truly becomes free. Mandela was aware of that, and to honor his memory we need to keep those issues at the forefront and work to resolve them.