A Northeastern Perspective on the Passing of Madiba

by Professor Dennis R. Shaughnessy

From Social Jus­tice to Eco­nomic Justice

For the past six years, we have trav­eled to South Africa each sum­mer to work with stu­dents and entre­pre­neurs from the town­ships, or slums, of Cape Town.  Each year, forty under­grad­u­ate stu­dents study­ing global social enter­prise have had the priv­i­lege of pri­vately meet­ing with Nel­son Mandela’s close friend and fel­low Robben Island pris­oner, Dr. Ahmed Kathrada.  This past year, stu­dents also met with the retired Arch­bishop Desmond Tutu, a col­league and con­fi­dant of Madiba and fel­low Nobel Peace Prize winner. 

Dr. Kathrada has taken our stu­dents each year to visit Madiba’s prison cell.  In the infa­mous prison that housed so many of today’s anti-apartheid lead­er­ship of South Africa, he talked of Mandela’s dream of a moral, just and non-discriminatory soci­ety for all of South Africa.  Arch­bishop Tutu also shared with our stu­dents the view he shared with Man­dela for the need for for­give­ness and rec­on­cil­i­a­tion with the apartheid ene­mies of free­dom and equal­ity.   Only with for­give­ness, Tutu advised, can peo­ple live peace­fully together in pur­suit of a bet­ter and more just society.

As North­east­ern­ers, we also spend each sum­mer work­ing side-by-side with col­lege stu­dents enrolled in a unique “free” uni­ver­sity for poor black and coloured stu­dents called TSiBA.  Our stu­dents study along­side South African peer stu­dents who have suf­fered from deep poverty and the iso­la­tion and suf­fer­ing that it brings to young peo­ple in the world’s most unequal coun­try.  The rela­tion­ships built between NU stu­dents and their new South Africa friends are often the high­light of their time at our university.

Through the hard work of ser­vice, our stu­dents have worked in com­mu­ni­ties where Madiba is seen as the equiv­a­lent of George Wash­ing­ton, Abra­ham Lin­coln and Barack Obama rolled into one fig­ure, and more.  Madiba is not only the father of South Africa, but also the sym­bol of equal­ity, free­dom, fair­ness and decency.  He is beloved and revered by all South Africans regard­less of color, class or faith in a way that we as Amer­i­cans liv­ing in polit­i­cally con­tentious times can’t eas­ily relate to.  His pass­ing will only make his legacy and his mes­sage stronger.

But despite the great­ness of Madiba, any visit to the slums of South Africa nearly twenty years after his elec­tion to the pres­i­dency can see that poverty still reigns freely over many of the country’s town­ships and rural com­mu­ni­ties.  The progress achieved over the past two decades in social jus­tice has not yet been matched with mean­ing­ful and sus­tain­able progress in eco­nomic jus­tice.  Yes, it has only been twenty years, and it is per­haps too much to expect of such a young democ­racy to have elim­i­nated poverty so quickly.  How­ever, progress in reduc­ing inequal­ity, improv­ing pub­lic edu­ca­tion and cre­at­ing jobs at liv­ing wages has been too slow for many young peo­ple to tol­er­ate.  The patience of the aver­age South African has been impres­sive, but we can expect that it will begin to wane if change on the eco­nomic side of the equal­ity equa­tion doesn’t arrive soon.

It is the great Madiba’s his­toric legacy that South Africa is finally a free, demo­c­ra­tic and non-discriminatory soci­ety.  It is up to the next leader of this remark­able coun­try to carry that legacy for­ward from social jus­tice to eco­nomic jus­tice.  With social equal­ity comes the expec­ta­tion for full and com­plete equal­ity, and the expec­ta­tion among the mil­lions of poor South Africans is for more  and bet­ter jobs, and the improved con­di­tions of daily life that fol­low pro­duc­tive and mean­ing­ful work for all.