Death of Nelson Mandela: IU experts available to discuss his role and legacy

Dec. 5, 2013


BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Nelson Mandela, who inspired people across the globe with his leadership of the South African anti-apartheid movement and his role in creating a multiracial democracy in the country, died today at age 95.

Born in 1918, Mandela grew up in rural South Africa. He was elected president of South Africa in 1994 after spending a third of his adult life -- 27 years -- as a political prisoner.

Indiana University experts are available to comment on Mandela and his legacy.

Shaped by upbringing and colonialism

Alex Lichtenstein, an IU Bloomington associate professor of history whose research deals with labor history and racial justice struggles, says Mandela was a unique figure in the African freedom struggle.

“By force of personality, clarity of vision and stubborn persistence he led South Africa from brutal white minority rule known as apartheid into a post-colonial government devoted to political freedom, multiculturalism and racial reconciliation: the much-lauded ‘rainbow nation,’” Lichtenstein said.

He said Mandela’s personality and abilities were shaped by his rural African upbringing but also by forces of colonialism.

“As a member of a Xhosa royal African household, he was imbued with certain notions of leadership that served him well later in life,” Lichtenstein said. “He proved adept at balancing confident authority with the creation of consensus, a priceless skill within the fractious ANC and in a deeply divided country.

“At the same time, Mandela was undeniably a product of the colonial world. Evangelical Christianity and the British Empire deeply marked his upbringing and schooling. Mandela took from them Victorian notions of fair play and the possibility of universal self-improvement.”

Lichtenstein said Mandela straddled the two great forces that remade the colonial world in the aftermath of World War II, nationalism and communism.

“At first he embraced the prevailing ‘Africanist’ ideology of ‘Africa for the Africans,’” he said. “Yet his social and political encounters with courageous white, Indian and African communists drew him closer to the Communist Party. Mandela fused these two world views into a ‘non-racial’ ideology of African liberation that proved to have staying power.”

Lichtenstein can be reached at 812-855-7504 or

Once reflected politics of hope

Pedro Machado, an IU Bloomington assistant professor of history who earned his bachelor's degree at the University of Cape Town, said Mandela was a beloved figure in South Africa, but his political influence was much diminished.

"There is no doubt that Nelson Mandela is regarded as an iconic figure of the anti-apartheid struggle,” he said. “Although the latter cannot be reduced to the sacrifices of one man, of course, Mandela is much revered and loved in South Africa and around the world for his contributions to the country's democratic turn."

Machado said Mandela represented, at a time of euphoria about the country's future, the potential of the country to become a "rainbow nation." The overwhelming support for the African National Congress in the early post-apartheid years, he said, spoke to the belief among voters that Mandela and the party would fulfill an almost messianic mission to deliver equality and justice.

He said Mandela’s death will be widely mourned not only because of his iconic stature but because it marks the passing of an ANC that once reflected a politics of hope.

“Disillusion in the ANC has become widespread in South Africa in the past five years or so, and its embrace of free-market capitalism has failed to deliver markedly improved living standards for most black South Africans,” he said.

"The country's wealth remains concentrated in the hands of a minority as disparities continue to grow among the population amidst high unemployment rates for many young Africans. But the country has strong democratic institutions, a robust free press and judiciary, and an active civil society. Nelson Mandela's passing will no doubt produce much heartfelt mourning and generate reflections on the ANC politics of the 1990s but will not adversely affect the country's political dynamic."

Machado can be reached at 812-855-1320 or

Brought together apartheid rulers and their victims

Mandela’s leadership was essential in holding South African society together at a time when it could have fractured on racial lines, says South Africa native Patrick O'Meara, an Indiana University vice president emeritus, professor emeritus in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs and former director of the IU African Studies Program.

"Mandela was very important at a point when there could have been major disruption and upheaval in that society,” he said. “He remains a symbol of an idealized South Africa, which I hope will come about sometime in the future.”

For example, Mandela's support for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, rather than a war crimes tribunal or other sanctions against Afrikaner leaders, "brought many of the perpetrators and the victims together. It was a long process of hearings all over the place, and it was a sort of cleansing. It was imperfect in its way, but it was a very important transitional process, which helped to lead into a new order.”

O’Meara said Mandela represented a generation of deeply committed leaders who were dedicated to justice and equity. The African National Congress Freedom Charter, he said, was an incredible document in which there were clear statements on the multiracial society of due process.

"Some of that has diminished a bit as power has moved to a new generation,” he said. “Mandela's generation was one that reached out, and Mandela in particular reached out to whites, including to people who had been the high priests of apartheid.”

He noted the irony that Mandela shared the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize with F.W. De Klerk, the last apartheid-era president of South Africa. “He even at one point arranged at his residence in Pretoria a tea reception for the widows and wives of former presidents, and they were the people who really in the end put him into prison."

O’Meara said the hope that Mandela inspired has remained largely unfulfilled in South Africa. "Poverty is still rampant,” he said. “Crime is very high. There is increasing corruption. But, on the other hand, it is a very different place from the South Africa in which I grew up."

O’Meara can be reached at 812-856-5502 or