Mandela was 'tough as nails,' yet gracious, UF experts say
Published: Friday, December 6, 2013 at 6:41 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, December 6, 2013 at 6:41 p.m.
In the hours after Nelson Mandela's death, those most familiar with him at the University of Florida recalled a man devoted to fighting for the basic rights and dignity of all people.
Mandela, the first black president of South Africa and a leader of the anti-apartheid movement, died Thursday after years of poor health, South African President Jacob Zuma announced Thursday evening. He was 95.
"This is the passing of a really important person, not just in South Africa, but in the whole world," said R. Hun Davis Jr., professor emeritus of history and African studies at UF and former director of UF's Center for African Studies.
As an editor of two publications on the anti-apartheid movement, Davis is well-acquainted with Mandela's impact. While imprisoned for his anti-apartheid activities, Mandela came into the spotlight in the 1980s as a rallying point, Davis said, with the "Free Mandela" movement spreading worldwide.
"Some members of Congress were even arrested at the South African Embassy in Washington for protesting," Davis said.
Unknown to most until after his release, Mandela became even more influential in ending the apartheid toward the end of his incarceration.
"What the public didn't know was that, in his last two or three years of prison, he was very crucial in negotiations with the government," Davis said.
Finally, Davis said, Mandela's legacy was cemented when he steered the nation out of apartheid and away from civil war during the early 1990s, being elected president in 1994.
"He set the standard by saying ‘I am president of the whole country; I'm not just president of black South Africa,' " Davis said. "He brought social stability, he brought political stability, and he brought economic stability."
Winston Nagan, a law professor at the UF College of Law, said he was deeply saddened though not surprised by Mandela's death.
"He was such an exceptional and inspiring man," Nagan said. "The people in South Africa were celebrating today, because he left a very beautiful legacy."
Nagan was born in Mandela's native Eastern Cape province, and later attended the University of Cape Hope, Mandela's first alma mater. Nagan joined the African National Congress as a student in the 1960s, while Mandela was its leader.
Nagan recalls Mandela's courtroom speech after being arrested for his activities and facing a potential death sentence. Rather than testify in his own defense, Mandela declared his belief in equality and dignity.
"He made it clear that these were principles he was willing to live and die for," Nagan said. "It made a tremendous statement for us students. We were inspired as young people to carry on the tradition of resisting the apartheid."
UF doctoral candidate Buyiswa Mini, speaking from South Africa, said that, although she and most of her fellow South Africans were very sad at the news of his death, she was comforted by being in the country when Mandela died.
"He did not die a sudden or a violent death, or a lonely death, but died in a loving environment surrounded by his family and close friends," she said. "He deserved a dignified death."
Mini said Mandela's greatness as a leader was exemplified by his championing of the concept of Ubuntu, a philosophical concept roughly translating to "human kindness."
"He did this by example … by giving from his own pocket for the creation of projects to help the needy, including children and youth." she said. "He was more of a statesman than a politician."
Davis said Mandela's seemingly contradictory personal qualities allowed him to lead effectively.
"He had a backbone of steel, but he could project real warmth in his interactions with people," Davis said. "He came across to the world as a warm and gracious person, but he was basically tough as nails."
Davis emphasized that, as Mandela said himself, he was no superhuman but a human being with human flaws. Yet he was an extraordinary leader and activist, Davis said.
"Within South Africa, I think, 50 or 100 years from now, he will be seen as a father-of-the-country type of person," Davis said. "The way we look at (George) Washington and (Abraham) Lincoln, he will be looked upon in South Africa."