A Northeastern Perspective on the Passing of Madiba

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.