Remembering Nelson Mandela

Statement by William S. White, president of the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation

The trustees and staff of the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation join the people of South Africa in mourning the loss of Nelson Mandela.

Former South African Constitutional Court Justice Albie Sachs, speaking recently in Flint, said that Nelson Mandela “became the symbol of dignity, decency and uncompromising demand for full equality for everybody.” I couldn’t agree more.

As an activist he was courageous, electrifying a people with his powerful example of serenity under pressure. As a statesman he was unwavering, captivating the world as he helped dismantle apartheid and maneuver a peaceful transition. As a leader he was selfless, nurturing democracy and inspiring awe across South Africa. As a humanitarian he was compassionate, steadfast in his commitment to helping those less fortunate than himself. As a man he was loved the world over.

We here at Mott have long been inspired by the life of Nelson Mandela. The Foundation is proud of our history of support for the people and institutions of South Africa, among these the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund, which has received Foundation support for more than a decade.

— William S. White, president of the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, Dec. 6, 2013

Anti-apartheid activist Albie Sachs reflects on Nelson Mandela’s legacy

Nelson Mandela, who died on Dec. 5, 2013, did not start South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement nor did he found the African National Congress (ANC). But, said Albie Sachs, former South African high court justice, “he represented our movement, he represented our generation, he represented our culture, he represented our country so beautifully.”

“I think all South Africans feel immense pride to be from the country that produced Nelson Mandela,” Sachs added.

Nelson Mandela headshot.
Nelson Mandela. Source: South Africa The Good News

Sachs, a lawyer and anti-apartheid crusader who worked with Mandela and the ANC for more than three decades to help bring about the end of apartheid, spoke on the topic “Nelson Mandela: A Leader and a Friend” at the University of Michigan-Flint on June 4, 2013.

Sachs was a founding justice of South Africa’s Constitutional Court and one of the co-authors of the constitution that was adopted during the country’s peaceful transition to democracy in the early 1990s. During his talk, which was co-sponsored by UM-Flint and the Mott Foundation, Sachs discussed Mandela’s legacy and his importance to the South African people.

Sachs reflected on his first impression of Mandela at the 1956 trial of 156 activists charged with treason by the apartheid regime: “He emerged as the best articulator of what the people were fighting for — not apologizing for what they wanted. ‘We want freedom; we want freedom in our lifetime.’”

Over the next seven years, the ANC would be outlawed and its supporters jailed or exiled. Mandela was “popping up and disappearing” to avoid police, Sachs said, speaking out for freedom and meeting clandestinely with the underground anti-apartheid network. Such gatherings were fraught with risk.

One such meeting, in 1963, was held in the basement of a house in a “very posh white suburb,” according to Sachs.

“Nelson Mandela walked in and he had to stoop because the ceiling wasn’t very high, and we were all very, very tense,” Sachs said. “If we were captured there would be hundreds of years of jail simply for being there — apart from what we were meeting for — and in he came with that serene smile. Somehow he was not going to be perturbed by the circumstances, and that smile stayed with me.”

I think all South Africans feel immense pride to be from the country that produced Nelson Mandela.” Albie Sachs

After the meeting Mandela was captured and put on trial. Before being sentenced to prison, he delivered a legendary speech that ended: “I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

Sachs said: “And that was the last that the world heard of Nelson Mandela for 27 years. And yet somehow, looking back on his life, his voice was the most powerful when it was the most silenced.”

After being imprisoned himself, Sachs was exiled in 1966.

As disenfranchised blacks pushed for legal rights and unrest grew into violence over the next three decades, the racist Afrikaner regime answered with more brutality. One target was Sachs, an ANC National Executive Committee member working from Mozambique. He lost his right arm and the sight in one eye from a car bomb placed by South African agents in 1988.

Under pressure of more unrest, international scorn and economic sanctions, the white-dominated government finally legalized the ANC and released Mandela from prison in 1990.

The Charles Stewart Mott Foundation made its first grant in South Africa in 1988. Mott continues to support programs there that give the poor access to social justice in order to reduce poverty and encourage self-reliance, including grants of more than $2.5 million to the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund. In 2011, Mott granted $150,000 to the Constitutional Court Trust in Johannesburg to create an oral history of the creation of the court.

Sachs said his friendship with Mandela was renewed in Zambia a few weeks after the latter was released, when former ANC prisoners reunited with ANC leaders in exile. Sachs joined Mandela’s team negotiating a transition to democracy. He was appointed to the Constitutional Committee to help write the post-apartheid constitution, pushing hard for its broadly inclusive Bill of Rights.

The precarious — but peaceful — march toward democracy was nearly halted in its tracks in 1993 when right-wingers trying to provoke a racial civil war assassinated Chris Hani, chief of the armed section of the ANC and an ardent supporter of the peaceful transition.

“That was almost the moment when everything slipped away,” said Sachs, recalling Mandela’s response. “There was only one person who could go on the air and say: ‘Keep calm, keep calm. We are going to get there through the vote … . Go back to your homes. Keep calm. Don’t throw stones. Don’t burn buses. Keep calm.’

“That was the moment that Nelson Mandela became president — long before we voted him in — because he was the only person who could speak to the South African nation in that way and calm the people.”

Shortly after he was elected president in the country’s first democratic balloting, Mandela summoned Sachs to explain the process — which Sachs said he developed — of granting amnesty to each individual who came forward and acknowledged the crimes he or she had committed during apartheid.

“Telling the truth was the foundation for amnesty,” Sachs said.

Soon Mandela appointed Sachs as one of the initial 11 jurists on the Constitutional Court, the country’s highest.

A pivotal moment came six months into the life of the new court when the justices struck down one of Mandela’s first proclamations, establishing the structure of local elections. But the high court said such a law had to be passed by parliament. The president addressed the nation and affirmed the decision as proof “that democracy is taking firm root and that nobody is above the law. This is something of which we should be proud and which the whole of our country must welcome.”

Sachs told his Flint audience: “That day was as important as the day when we all stood in line and voted, establishing South Africa as a democracy. When Nelson Mandela accepted the decision of our court and did so with so much grace — that was the day we became a constitutional democracy in which everybody would be bound by the terms of our constitution.”

Looking back at Mandela’s life as an attorney, activist, prisoner, president and paragon of peace, Sachs said: “Soft vengeance is more powerful than hard vengeance because you are changing the nature of the contest. You are winning the moral victory and the victory of values — and that really is the greatest achievement of Nelson Mandela.

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