Protesting Apartheid Woke Up a Generation

South Africa's leader inspired young Americans to become aware of world affairs.

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A pedestrian walks beneath two giant portraits of former President Nelson Mandela outside City Hall in Cape Town, South Africa, Monday, June 24, 2013. Mandela's health has deteriorated and he is now in critical condition, the South African government said Sunday.
A pedestrian walks beneath portraits of former President Nelson Mandela outside City Hall in Cape Town, South Africa. Mandela's health has deteriorated and he is now in critical condition.

As South African President Jacob Zuma said in his eloquent tribute announcing Nelson Mandela's death yesterday, "We saw in him what we seek in ourselves."

This explains why I, as a college student at the University of Texas in the 80s, sat in front of the UT administration building with a raised fist chanting, "Divest Now!" and the singsong "Freee Nel-son Man-de-la." So did my friends, at UT and Bryn Mawr and the University of Vermont - and so did a student at Occidental College named Barack Obama whose very first political action was a protest against apartheid. There were shantytowns and sit-ins at colleges across the country urging an end to apartheid, and for those institutions to end investments in South Africa as a form of economic sanction.

And full confession, it was also a little trendy. There were cool posters and we got to sing along to Little Steven. I maintain to this day that Sun City is still a kickass protest song.

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For those of us coming of age in that era, Nelson Mandela was our awakening to social justice and a world larger than ourselves. Having missed the civil rights movement, opposing apartheid was our chance to do something to rectify a wrong and act for the greater good. Allow me a "you kids" moment, but the horror of apartheid cannot be overstated. Forced segregation, beatings, killings, elimination of citizenship, economic depravity, all the characteristics of the Jim Crow south manifested in a country half a world away. We felt we had to do something.

Our president at the time, Ronald Reagan, was wrong on Nelson Mandela and apartheid, like he was wrong on most things. So was the right wing of the Republican Party, which considered Mandela a terrorist. Anti-communism blinded the right to any other moral consideration, or as Dave Weigel put it in Slate, "The U.S. sometimes identifies the wrong guy as the black hat. In 1990, when Mandela was finally being released from prison, Cox News Service broke the news that, err, the CIA helped put him there."

Yes, Nelson Mandela was a militant. And yes, he healed a nation. And he also inspired and helped raise a generation of young Americans to a greater consciousness about themselves, about others and about their place in the world.

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  • Corrected 12/9/13: The original version of this post misidentified the university Obama attended when he participated in an anti-apartheid protest.