Mandela Touts Education on Louisiana Tour
BATON ROUGE, LA. — In his first trip to the deep South last month, Nobel Peace Prize winner Nelson Mandela repeatedly emphasized the importance of education, particularly to Black communities struggling to shed the remnants of racial segregation.
When an African American girl from a local high school asked the former South African president for some advice, Mandela urged her to stay in school and study hard. Throughout his visit to Baton Rouge,
Mandela repeatedly emphasized the importance of education, especially to the Black community.
“Education is the most powerful weapon you can have as an individual, and once you’ve got it, nobody can take it away from you,” Mandela told young Letitia Smith.
Earlier, Mandela had given the same advice to 800 graduates at historically Black Southern University.
“It’s no use passing your first (academic) degree and resting contentedly,” Mandela told the grads.
Noting that “competition has become ruthless” in the modern world, the former South African president told the students that they should pursue at least a master’s degree and, if possible, a doctorate.
Several times during his visit, Mandela talked about the deplorable condition of the Black schools that existed under South Africa’s White supremacist apartheid government.
The apartheid government kept Mandela in prison for 27 years because of his political activism in favor of Black rights. He was finally freed in 1990 and became the first president elected after apartheid was dismantled in South Africa. He served from 1994 until his retirement last year.
During Mandela’s visit, one of Louisiana’s best-known symbols of White supremacy showed up to protest at a special fund-raising dinner where Southern University and predominantly White Louisiana State University both presented the icon with honorary doctorate degrees.
David Duke, the former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan who made an unsuccessful bid for governor in 1991, claimed that
Mandela was a communist and a terrorist who didn’t deserve to be honored.
“It’s like giving Timothy McVeigh an honorary doctorate,” Duke said, referring to man convicted of bombing the federal building in Oklahoma City. The protest by Duke and his handful of followers lasted only about 10 minutes, and the protesters left quietly after hotel security ordered them off of the property. Most of the 1,300 people attending the dinner weren’t even aware of Duke’s presence.
“Maybe they should have let him (Duke) inside — maybe he would have learned something,” Southern University Police Chief Reginald Gaines said later.
In addressing the Black and White audience at the fund-raiser, Mandela recalled how he and other Black African leaders were initially hesitant to even talk to the White apartheid leaders who had repressed them for so many years.
“But our brains told us that if we didn’t talk to those people, our country would go up in flames,” Mandela said.
“The most difficult task is not to change the people around you, but to change yourself.”
Dr. William Jenkins, president of the LSU system, is a White native South African who left the country 22 years ago because he feared that the repressive apartheid government would trigger a revolution.
Jenkins said he considers Mandela’s greatest legacy to be the smooth and bloodless transition that South Africa made from apartheid to democracy.
“You walked free, and with you a nation began to walk toward freedom,” Jenkins told Mandela at the fund-raiser.
Mandela emphasized the need for universities to provide aid to poor students, even though colleges around the world are facing funding problems.
“It concerns me that at a time when knowledge is by far the most invaluable asset, many children go without because their parents cannot afford to finance it,” Mandela said.
During his visit, Southern University named its School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs in Mandela’s honor.
At that ceremony, Mandela credited Southern University with working with South Africa’s colleges in recent years to enhance educational opportunities for people of color in his country.
In fact, Mandela’s visit to Baton Rouge was triggered in part by several recent collaborative programs between Southern University and several South African universities.
Dr. Leon Tarver, president of the Southern University System, said the programs are not only designed to improve higher education in South Africa, but also to provide training in computers and other high-tech skills to public school teachers.
Just before he left Baton Rouge, Mandela again emphasized the importance of those programs to his country.
“I’ll go to bed tonight feeling strong, inspired and full of hope because of the way you have supported us at this university,” Mandela said.
“I feel, in fact, 50 years younger than I am,” the 81-year-old added.
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com