Andrew Skerritt: For my generation, Mandela was our Dr. King

You couldn’t attend college in the ‘80s without developing a strong distaste for South Africa’s apartheid and immense respect for the political prisoner, Nelson Mandela.

Our Washington, D.C, campus frequently erupted with protests calling for the university to divest from companies doing business in the white-minority led country.

Groups of students from Howard University made the weekly trek to Pennsylvania Avenue to join TransAfrica’s Randall Robinson demonstrating in front of the Reagan White House.

Back then, students struggled to understand America’s reluctance to sanction the white-minority government of South Africa for disenfranchising millions of blacks. They believed that heaping pressure on the apartheid regime would make a difference. During those days, they cheered the Soweto uprising and admired the courage of those young men and women who danced and sang in defiance of rubber bullets and live ammunition.

P.W. Botha and Mangosuthu Buthelezi were the bêtes noires of our generation — Botha for his racist intransigence in maintaining apartheid;  Buthelezi for being apartheid’s pawn.

The struggle against apartheid, albeit at a safe distance, was the baptism into activism for my generation. We were too young to march for Civil Rights or against the war in Vietnam. Mandela was our Martin. We wore his bearded, defiant portrait on our T-shirts and invoked his name on the streets.

As a student journalist back then, I waged my war on the opinion pages of the student Hilltop newspaper. The newsprint is yellow and faded, but the anger and passion of those words still resonate: “Youth Play Major Role in South Africa” the headline read. “The youth form the vanguard of the struggle for the removal of apartheid and the creation of a just society in South Africa,” I wrote almost 30 years ago.

By the time Mandela made his long awaited walk to freedom in 1989, the anti-apartheid T-shirts had grown faded and worn. It was time to replace them with new colors, a new flag — black, blue, green, red, white and yellow; new images — Mandela taking the oath of office as president of a new, free South Africa.

On the African continent, despair often follows euphoria, corruption compounds conflict. But the genius of Mandela is that he figured out a way to embrace reconciliation without recrimination. He taught his countrymen how to excavate the past without living in it. He understood that sports, long used as a weapon to punish his country during apartheid, could be a powerful tool to unite and heal.

I visited South Africa during the summer of 2010 as the country showcased itself as host of the FIFA World Cup. In six weeks, I got a glimpse of the South Africa Mandela envisioned — multi-racial, multi-cultural, opportunistic, hopeful. I was struck by the disparities between the rich and the poor. But mostly I was inspired by the optimism of the uniformed students — those whose parents had borne the brunt of the struggle.

They dreamed of being anything they wanted to be. They lived in a country of endless possibilities. The color of their skin was no longer an impediment. They were the rightful heirs of Mandela’s inheritance — the proud legacy of a humble man.

Guest Author



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