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Mandela in the Bay Area: Remembering a Giant in Human Rights

| December 5, 2013
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Nelson Mandela in United Kingdom appearance in 1990. (Getty Images).

Nelson Mandela in United Kingdom appearance in 1990. (Getty Images)

Nelson Mandela has died. Here’s the lead on the story from the Associated Press:

JOHANNESBURG — Nelson Mandela, who became one of the world’s most beloved statesmen and a colossus of the 20th century when he emerged from 27 years in prison to negotiate an end to white minority rule in South Africa, has died. He was 95.

South African President Jacob Zuma made the announcement at a news conference late Thursday, saying “we’ve lost our greatest son.”

From my own perspective — that of a white American who has struggled to understand our own nation’s racial divides in all their depth and complexity — Mandela’s most incredible accomplishment was that the transition he led — from a brutally repressive regime based on white supremacy to a democratically ruled, black-majority state — has been not only peaceful, but marked by grace and a determination to unify.

Not to strain too far for the local angle, but the Bay Area did provide a footnote to Mandela’s career. During a U.S. tour that followed his release in 1990, Mandela appeared at a packed and wildly celebratory Oakland Coliseum.

In the speech, given June 30, 1990, he thanked the Bay Area for its support. “It is clear, beyond any reasonable results, that the un-banning of our organization came as a result of the pressures exerted upon the apartheid regime by yourselves,” he told the crowd to raucous applause, as can be seen in archival footage from the speech. At the time, Berkeley, Oakland and San Francisco all had ordinances calling for divestment of funds placed with U.S. companies who had been doing business in South Africa. Local port workers refused to unload South African goods from ships. UC Berkeley was forced to divest $1.7 billion after protests on campus.

KQED’s Joshua Johnson recently talked with Pedro Noguera, professor of education at New York University. Noguera was student body president in the mid-1980s at UC Berkeley. He tells us how he became involved in the divestment movement:
“What was important about those protests, they were not simply the usual rites of spring that you get on college campuses like Berkeley. It continued, through the summer, into the fall, for the next two years. And resulted in the University of California, the Regents, voting to divest. When they did, that was the largest disinvestment by any American university, $4.6 billion dollars in corporations that were doing business in South Africa.”

And here’s more, from The New York Times, on the Oakland event:

“We are at a crucial historical juncture,” Mr. Mandela told a cheering crowd of 58,000 people packing the Oakland Coliseum and turning it into a sea of black, green and yellow banners of the African National Congress. “We shall not turn back.”

In the last appearance of his tour, the deputy president of the African National Congress smiled broadly and told the crowd, “Despite my 71 years, at the end of this visit I feel like a young man of 35. I feel like an old battery that has been recharged. And if I feel so young, it is the people of the United States of America that are responsible for this.”

Although he had refrained from speaking on American issues for most of his visit, Mr. Mandela said he had received a number of messages from “the first American nation, the American Indians,” including a group prevented by logistical mixups from presenting him ceremonial robes today.

“I can assure you they have left me very disturbed,” Mr. Mandela said, “and if I had time I would visit their areas and get from them an authoritative description of the difficulties under which they live.” He said he would do so on a future visit to the United States in October.

Here’s video of the event, posted today by NBC Bay Area:

Remembering Mandela’s Bay Area Visitlocal As word spread of the death of South Africa’s Nelson Mandela, many in the Bay Area found themselves remembering his visit to Oakland in 1990. The anti-apartheid leader South Africa’s first black president and one of the world’s most beloved statesmen.

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More on Nelson Mandela’s passing:

An obit by The New York Times’s Bill Keller: Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s Liberator as Prisoner and President, Dies at 95

A Washington Post slideshow: Nelson Mandela: An extraordinary life

BBC video: Nelson Mandela: What legacy does he leave behind?

ABC News: Mandela: A South African Lincoln

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Category: International, Racial Issues

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About the Author ()

Dan Brekke has worked in media ever since Nixon's first term, when newspapers were still using hot type. He had moved on to online news by the time Bill Clinton met Monica Lewinsky. He's been at KQED since 2007, is an enthusiastic practitioner of radio and online journalism and will talk to you about absolutely anything. Reach Dan Brekke at dbrekke@kqed.org.
  • Sheryll Thomson

    My daughter, Leah, and I went to the Oakland Coliseum when Nelson Mandela came to Oakland. I am glad to have this description of the time. The audience was rapt.
    I especially remember the quality of the atmosphere as we walked out over the overpass back to BART. People weren’t talking, as we all walked slowly — as if all together — or talked quietly. Most of us had worked for years to support the anti-apartheid movement. I doubted we would ever experience such a palpable atmosphere of awe and respect there again.

    • Dan Brekke

      Beautiful, Sheryll. Thanks for sharing.