As the news of former South African President Nelson Mandela’s death began to spread, several members of the USC Upstate community felt the impact.
Retired English professor Emmanuel Seko first met Mandela in 1954. Mandela was a young lawyer practicing in Johannesburg and Seko was a young man. Seko said he remembered Mandela telling him, “South Africa has a long way to go. We have to see to it that South Africa is liberated.”
“He saved South Africa,” Seko said. “He avoided a bloody civil war and a racial revolution that would have engulfed the whole nation.”
After finishing college, Seko said things in South Africa were “very bad,” and he moved to Nigeria.
“It was impossible for a black man to be anything in South Africa,” Seko said. “You carried a passbook with you your whole life. They would stop you, ask you questions. They could do anything to you. You could disappear and your family would never know. It was a horrible system.”
Seko said that was when he learned there were two graduations for every South African. He said the first was to graduate from the apartheid system.
In Nigeria, Seko befriended members of the Peace Corps and was encouraged to come to the United States. He would complete his doctoral degree at the University of Wisconsin, before moving to Spartanburg in 1973 to begin work at USC Upstate, which was then USC-Spartanburg, retiring in 2002.
Seko said he became an American citizen and never considered returning to his home country.
Sophomore business administration major Malika Allie of Cape Town, South Africa, said she grew up in complete democracy because of Mandela.
Allie, a member of the USC Upstate women’s golf team, said that she was shocked when she learned of his death Thursday night.
“I knew he was older and very sick, but it’s hard to believe he is actually gone,” Allie said. “He was a true hero to all South Africans and an inspiration to the world.”
Allie said her grandparents had moved to England during apartheid. Allie, who was born in England, moved to South Africa when she was 5. She said her life would have been very different, had it not been for Mandela.
“Different races were not allowed to do anything together before the apartheid,” Allie said. “You couldn’t go to the same beach or the same schools. Equality was much more evident in South Africa after 1994 and it was because of him.”
Allie said she spoke to her mother briefly Friday morning. She said her mom had awakened to the news of Mandela’s death and that she too was shocked.
“It is a very sad day for South Africans,” Allie said. “He played a key role in our freedom.”
Allie said Mandela was an inspiration to many because even after his 27-year imprisonment, he was able to forgive those who had oppressed him.
“He was seen as an excellent leader who stood up for freedom,” Allie said. “It is amazing to see that he played a key role in lives all around the world. It’s wonderful to see the love that people have for him not only in South Africa, but worldwide.”
Douglas Jackson, senior instructor of Spanish at USC Upstate, said that Mandela was one of the reasons he became a Peace Corps Volunteer in Africa in the ’90s.
“Africa seemed to me to be forgotten by the United States and Europe,” Jackson said. “Genocide in Rwanda, apartheid in South Africa, war in Angola, famine in Ethiopia all lead me to want to do something for Africa. I applied to the Peace Corps to do something about it. Nelson Mandela taught me that diversity is the solution to adversity.”
Jackson said, in addition to Mandela, he had the opportunity to learn from African leaders such as Bishop Desmond Tutu and Amilcar Cabral. He said they helped become a giver, and not a taker.
“Our society has too many people who want and way too many who need,” Jackson said. “The few of us that believe in the responsibility to serve others as a privilege make a difference in everyone’s lives. Community service is the greatest gift anyone can give. Giving your time is better than giving treasure! Mandela taught me this.”
Dr. Colleen O’Brien, an associate professor of Early American Literature, was a Fulbright fellow in 1991 in Botswana. She had chosen Botswana instead of South Africa because there was still an intellectual boycott against South Africa. Her primary research field had been about the anti-apartheid movement.
Mandela was at the forefront of the struggle against apartheid, which used state violence and repressive laws to segregate and oppress South Africa’s black majority.
While O’Brien did not have the opportunity to work directly with Mandela during her research, she did have the opportunity to hear him speak in Philadelphia a few years later.
“I felt a bit like many Americans probably felt 50 years ago, when they heard of the Kennedy assassination, when I heard about President Mandela’s passing,” O’Brien said. “He was one of the most remarkable people the world will ever see.