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‘Hanging On to Every Word’: Listeners Reflect on Nelson Mandela’s 1998 Address at Harvard

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On Sep. 18, 1998, South African President Nelson Mandela stood in front of an array of University officials and red-robed scholars — including then-Harvard President Neil L. Rudenstine — and awed a packed crowd of 25,000 in Tercentenary Theatre.

The scene resembled a Harvard Commencement ceremony. The lawn between Widener Library and Memorial Church was decked out in the banners of Harvard’s twelve houses and its graduate schools.

“Everybody was racing — 21-year-olds running like elementary-school kids at recess,” Mark E. McIntosh ’99 told Harvard Magazine at the time.

The event was a specially-convened “convocation” to award Mandela an honorary doctorate of law. Mandela had in fact been asked to speak at Harvard before — The Crimson reported he had been invited each year since his election as president in 1994 — but he had declined the invitations because of his duties in South Africa.

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When Mandela visited the United States in September 1998, Harvard managed to squeeze the ceremony into a narrow three-hour window in his schedule.

Alicia E. Plerhoples ’01, who attended the speech as a sophomore, recalled it as a “surreal” experience.

“I remember going down with my friends to watch it and just thinking, ‘This is incredible that we are getting to hear directly from President Nelson Mandela,’” she said. “Everybody was really listening to every word, hanging on every word he was saying.”

She said she has kept a commemorative VHS tape of Mandela’s speech, although she doesn’t have a cassette player to watch it.

Mandela began his speech with a pair of stories. In one, he recounted dialing an establishment in South Africa. The woman on the other end of the line refused to tell him her name until he told her his.

The woman, Mandela said, “became very cross” and asked him “Have you passed your matric?” — referring to South Africa’s university entrance exam — to which Mandela said that if passing the exam was the qualification to talk to her, she ought to look out, because he might work hard enough to end up in a class with her.

“‘She said, ‘You will never be in my class,’ and banged the telephone,” Mandela said. He paused before adding, “How I wish she were here today,” as the crowd roared.

But Mandela, in his speech, said he was not accepting his degree as a mark of individual accomplishment. Instead, he said, he chose to see it as a “tribute to the struggles and achievements of the South African people as a whole.”

For Mandela — who led South Africa after spending 27 years in prison for his struggles against apartheid — the speech was as much a call to action as a reflection on the past.

“The world is still beset by great disparities between the rich and the poor, both within countries and between different parts of the world,” Mandela said.

He praised democratization efforts across the globe, but he warned his audience that “the freedoms which democracy brings will remain empty shells if they are not accompanied by real and tangible improvements in the material lives of the millions of ordinary citizens of those countries.”

But while thousands celebrated his arrival, Mandela’s speech followed more than a decade of intense anti-apartheid protest at the University, including the construction of a shantytown in Harvard Yard — something not lost on alumni, who argued that Harvard was cashing in on Mandela’s celebrity despite its opposition to divestment.

In a Nov. 30, 1998, letter to the editor of The Crimson, five Harvard alumni accused the University of “jumping on the bandwagon of Mandela’s worldwide fame and political success.” The letter noted that Harvard had rebuffed calls for divestment for years.

“Harvard needs to apologize to the people of South Africa, as well as to generations of students and alums who tried to get the University to do the right thing at a time when it could have influenced events,” the authors wrote.

The Harvard Gazette’s front-page story on the ceremony never mentioned the fight for divestment, the letter claimed. Nor, for that matter, did Mandela.

The ceremony also featured the announcement of the Emerging Africa Project at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Center for International Development, which Mandela described as “timely and greatly welcomed” and noted the program’s plans for collaboration with African scholars

Economist Jeffrey D. Sachs ’76 — the then-CID director — announced the project’s creation alongside professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. and former Ghanaian finance minister Kwesi Botchwey, who helped spearhead the program. Sachs wrote in an email that he was “profoundly grateful and honored” that Mandela agreed to help inaugurate the program.

When he was done speaking, though, Mandela did not rush out of the Yard, instead mingling with the audience.

He hugged students and shook their hands, thanked each member of the Harvard University Choir, and met each student who performed the South African national anthem with the Harvard-Radcliffe Kuumba Singers.

“It was a glorious day,” Sachs wrote. “I was delighted that so many people in the Harvard community were able to celebrate this very great man.”

—Staff writer Tilly R. Robinson can be reached at tilly.robinson@thecrimson.com. Follow her on X @tillyrobin.

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