Hillary Clinton: Channeling Nelson Mandela

Watchtower at the Robben Island Prison

On August 8, 2012, in the middle of an eight-nation, eleven-day trip to Africa, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke to the students and staff at the University of the Western Cape in South Africa. In a heartfelt speech, filled with powerful images and tender recollections, she recalled the words and actions of Nelson Mandela. She asked young people to build on his legacy of liberty and to not lose sight of the common humanity of those who oppose us:

“I first came to South Africa in 1994 for the inauguration of Nelson Mandela, someone who is of course a great leader and a hero to many, including myself. I sat at the inauguration and watched as jets from the South African Defense Force streaked across the sky, their contrails tinted with all the colors of the new national flag. For decades, those jets had been a powerful symbol of the system of apartheid. But on that day, they dipped their wings in salute to their new commander in chief.

“For those of us who witnessed the ceremony, it was a searing moment. Here was a man who had spent 27 years as a political prisoner not far from here, now being sworn in as president. And President Mandela’s journey represented something even larger – his country’s journey, the journey of your parents and grandparents and great grandparents, a long but steady march toward freedom for all its people. Being present at the birth of this new democracy was an experience that not only I, but the world, will never forget.

“We are now 18 years removed from that iconic moment. If you’re a student here at UWC, you were probably just a toddler back then. A few of you might not even have been born yet. You didn’t just grow up in a democratic South Africa – you grew up with a democratic South Africa. Today, your country is different from the one I visited in 1994, and so too are the challenges you must confront and the opportunities that are there for the seizing."

Clinton discussed South Africa’s increased efforts to combat HIV/Aids, a public-private partnership to improve teacher quality, a new program to help court systems fight gender-based violence, and an agreement with the city of Cape Town to provide high-speed internet access to Khayelitsha Township. She said that South Africa had set the standard for the world by voluntarily giving up nuclear weapons. And she talked about economic growth: Think highway from Cairo to Cape Town.

She spoke of her recent visit to Nelson Mandela and his wife Graca Machel at their home in Qunu: “The man who did so much to shape the history of a free South Africa has never stopped thinking about the future of South Africa. You, the young generation, are called not just to preserve the legacy of liberty that has been left to you by Madiba and by other courageous men and women. You are called to build on that legacy, to ensure that your country fulfills its own promise and takes its place as a leader among nations and as a force for peace, opportunity, equality, and democracy, and to stand up always for human rights at home and around the world.

“This is a journey that my own country knows well. Although America and South Africa are certainly different nations with different histories, we have a deep and abiding connection. Like you, Americans know what it takes to begin healing the wounds of oppression and discrimination. We have had leaders, and the Archbishop quoted one – our first president, George Washington – but also Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., and so many others who both inspired us and challenged us to live up to our values, to keep faith with the ideals set forth and enunciated at our beginning. We know this work is hard, and it is not only ongoing, it is never-ending. But like you, we are compelled by the arc of our nation’s history to stand up around the world for the values we ascribe to and advance at home. . . .

“Here in South Africa, you achieved something that few countries have ever done. You proved that it doesn’t take an all-out civil war to bridge the divide between people who grew up learning to hate one another. You showed that the rights of minorities can be protected even in places where the majority spent decades and decades living in oppression. You reminded the world that the way forward is not revenge, but truth and reconciliation.”

Clinton told her audience that their university “insisted on the freedom to teach whomever and however they saw fit. You can point to the independent trade unions that stood up for workers’ rights and the civil society groups that provided legal counsel and other essential support. You can point to the courageous journalists who insisted on telling the truth even when it invited the government’s wrath. . . .

“Only South Africans can fight corruption. Only South Africans can prevent the use of state security institutions for political gain. Only South Africans can defend your democratic institutions, preventing the erosion of a free press and demanding strong opposition parties and an independent judiciary. Only South Africans can truly preserve and extend the legacy of the Mandela generation.

“And these are tasks not just for governments. These are tasks for every citizen – political leaders, teachers, civil servants, entrepreneurs, community activists. And there is a special responsibility for the young people of South Africa, including all the students here today. . . .

“One of my personal heroines, and a former predecessor as First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt once said that human rights really starts in the small places close to home. It’s easy to talk about the big, sweeping issues, to pledge ourselves to the abstractions of human rights. It’s harder – much harder – to reach deep inside of our hearts and minds to truly see the other, whether that other is of a different race, ethnicity, religion, tribe, national origin, and recognize the common humanity.

“I have been in and around politics for a long time. It’s easy to lose sight of the common humanity of those who oppose you. You get to feeling that your way is the right way, that your agenda is the only one that will save the people. And all of the sudden, you begin to dehumanize the opposition and the other.

“The greatest lesson I learned about this came from Nelson Mandela. When I came to that inauguration in 1994, it was a time of great political conflict in my own country. My husband was President. People were saying terrible things about us both – personally, politically, every way you could think of. And I was beginning to get pretty hard inside. I was beginning to think, “Who do they think they are? What can I do to get even?”

“After that inauguration that I described in the beginning, I, along with other dignitaries from all over the world were invited to a great lunch under a huge tent at the President’s house. I had had breakfast there in the morning with President de Klerk, and I came back to have lunch with President Mandela. Oh, there were so many important people there. Our delegation was led by our Vice President. There were kings and prime ministers and presidents, and just a glittering assembly.

“And President Mandela stood to greet us all and welcome us to that lunch. And he said, “I know you are all very important people, and I invite you all to our new country. I thank you for coming. But the three most important people to me, here in this vast assembly, are three men who were my jailers on Robben’s Island.” I sat up so straight. I turned to the person next to me to say, “What did he say?” He said that the most important people here were three of his jailers.

“And he said, ‘I want them to stand up.’ And three middle-aged white men stood up. He called them by name. He said, ‘In the midst of the terrible conditions in which I was held for so many years, each of those men saw me as a human being. They treated me with dignity and respect. They talked to me; they listened. And when I walked out of prison, I knew I had a choice to make. I could carry the bitterness and the hatred of what had been done to me in my heart forever, and I would still be in prison. Or I could begin to reconcile the feelings inside myself with my fellow human beings.’”

Hillary Clinton was telling us that for Mandela prison was a state of mind.

For the full transcript see