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Princeton community mourns Mandela’s death, celebrates legacy as freedom fighter

In the wake of former South African President and anti-apartheid revolutionary Nelson Mandela’s death on Dec. 5, members of the University community reflected on his positive legacy and planned a series of commemorative events.


University professors reflected on Mandela’s contributions to promoting democracy and ending apartheid in South Africa, as well as the personal attributes he possessed that made him a leader.

Politics professor Leonard Wantchekon, who studies political and economic development in Africa, described Mandela as both a revolutionary and reformist, with a vision of radical change and the patience to pursue it gradually. Mandela also united different ethnic groups in his country, he added.

“He managed to do the miracle, the near impossible, in a short time to sort of reduce the potential for conflict between black and white in the country,” Wantchekon said.

Mandela had the temperament and capability to bring people of different views together, saidWilson School professor Jennifer Widner, who teaches "POL 366: Politics in Africa."

“The total lack of bitterness about the fact that he had been imprisoned for so long and had no rights separated him from other leaders and activists around the world, and brought him enormous credibility in negotiations,” Widner noted of Mandela’s international recognition.

Despite the distance between Princeton and South Africa, Mandela has left his mark on the campus community. In February of 2000, Mandela was offered an honorary degree from the University butcould not receive the award because a commitment to peace negotiations in Burundi kept him from visiting campus.


“It is a great loss to the world that he’s gone, but his influence will live on in all those he inspired,” University Spokesperson Martin Mbugua said of Mandela’s death.

Mbugua said that the University has not yet planned any events to honor Mandela.

Both Widner and Wantchekon said they believe that Mandela’s legacy as a leader will survive the test of time.

"I'm sure that history will judge him quite kindly because anything he did not do to limit corruption and misgovernance is nothing compared to what he did … And the personal sacrifice he had to endure to make it happen," noted Wantchekon.

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In her African politics class, Widner said she spends two weeks on Mandela and South Africa. She added that Mandela's story inspires Princeton students to pursue similar roles worldwide.

"I end up seeing former students on the other side of tables in Washington and other places very often because they have in fact committed themselves to work either in Africa or in crises around the globe [after taking the course]," Widner said.

Students have responded to Mandela’s death in different ways.

“When I first saw the TV in the dining hall, my heart skipped a beat,” Vice President of the African Students’ Association Gloria Kantungire ’16 said of her reaction to Mandela’s death.

“He is just such an inspiration to me because he never gave up; it really touches me how he kept fighting for what he believed in,” she added.

A member of both the African a cappella group Umqombothi and the Ellipses slam poetry team, Achille Tenkiang ’17 performed song and poetry at Sunday night’s Mandela Tribute Arch.

“We can’t let them take, fake, steal Mandela; we can’t let them twist his cries into, ‘I have a dream’ peace tunes,” his slam poem read.

As an African student, Tenkiang said that his immediate reaction was to mourn but that he also saw cause for celebration.

“Where I’m from in Cameroon, they called him Tata Mandela and 'tata' means father, so he’s really the father of our continent,” Tenkiang ’17 said. “It’s almost as if Africa has lost its heartbeat ... It’s grief, but it’s also celebration.”

“It’s disappointing to me that, at a place like Princeton, nothing has been said or really done,” Tenkiang said. “I’m glad that Umqombothi is taking the initiative and putting something out there for people to mourn and celebrate the life and legacy of Nelson Mandela.”

In celebrating the inspiration that Mandela has given the world, however, Tenkiang said he thinks the untold story is the important story.

“Most people don’t know that he was considered a terrorist,” Tenkiang said. “He wasn’t a peacemaker; no, he was a warrior. He fought for change. If we continue to view him as a peacemaker, I don’t think his legacy can endure because we are ignoring the truth that this man, he was a warrior, he was an outlaw, and because of that, he was able to bring about the change that we see today.”

Tenkiang said he feels a great sense of pride and inspiration when reflecting on who Mandela was and that he hopes to emulate him in his own life.

Even for students who are not African, a discussion about race, equality and the ideals Mandela stood for can be meaningful, Fields Center Fellow Hannah Rosenthal ’15 said.

Rosenthal also said that Mandela and his story have inspired her to pursue her goals.

“I think Mandela can definitely serve as an inspiration to all of those working to create change in their communities,” Rosenthal said. “His resolve and his drive to really affect the social structure in South Africa [are] admirable. For those of us working to shake things up in our own communities, I think we can really learn a lot from him.”

Rosenthal will facilitate “Reflections of Race and Ethnicity at Princeton: a Dialogue in Honor of Nelson Mandela” on Wednesday at 7 p.m. in Wu Cafe.

In cooperation with the Fields Center, Forbes College will create a poster in the near future with student quotes describing how they plan to change or improve the world in Mandela’s memory.