Madiba’s lessons

Valerie Lee
Vice Provost for Diversity and Inclusion; Vice President for Outreach and Engagement; Chief Diversity Officer


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A propitiously timed vacation makes Ohio State's chief diversity officer Valerie Lee an eyewitness to history.


Valerie Lee poses beside "The Wall of Names" at Freedom Park in Pretoria, South Africa.
Valerie Lee poses beside “The Wall of Names” at Freedom Park in Pretoria, South Africa.

Without any planning on my part, every time that I have set foot on African soil has been a historical moment. In March 1996 I was at the University of Fort Hare, South Africa, when the African National Congress papers were first opened for public viewing. I proudly signed the guest book. In March 2007 I was in Ghana when the Ghanaians were celebrating their 50th year of independence. The red, gold and green Ghanaian flag with its black star of freedom was on everything I saw, touched and bought. More recently, on the evening of Dec. 4, 2013, after an 18-hour flight, I landed in Johannesburg, South Africa. Resisting jet lag, I arose early the next morning and went to visit Freedom Park in Pretoria.

At Freedom Park I scanned “The Wall of Names” where etched on acres of walls were the names of those who died in political struggles — not just the Apartheid struggle, but names of some 80,000 persons from every political struggle that involved South Africa. I thought the South Africans were trying to be a little too inclusive. As a tourist I wanted to see the names of those who died in the struggle against apartheid, not every name from every last battle since the land was settled. Show me the names from those who were massacred in Sharpeville in 1960 and those shot in the Soweto uprisings. I wanted to see the name of the South African student I taught who graduated summa cum laude and returned to South Africa only to be killed in race riots. I was having difficulty understanding the inclusivity of the wall — everyone’s name was there, including those of Afrikaners who in my mind were undisputable criminals. No preference was given to those “on the right side of history.” Although my tour guide did his best to explain this inclusivity and the principles of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, I was thinking, “How could 40 million black people in a country of only 4 million white people consent to a policy that lets anyone who admits to a crime deemed ‘political’ be forgiven?” I’m all for forgiveness, but as someone who went to high school south of the Mason-Dixon Line in the late ’60s and attended college in the ’70s, I was more used to a gospel of social justice. My forgiveness was closer to the words of Martin Luther King, Jr.: “We will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” That’s forgiveness with clear corrective actions.

But then that night Mandela died, and the next two weeks for me would be what professors call “a teachable moment.”

I rose up early Friday and found out that I could go with the crowd directly to Mandela’s Houghton home. I didn’t understand what kind of protocol would permit me, neither kin nor acquaintance, to arrive on the deceased’s front lawn the very next morning, but I followed the crowd. I stood on the lawn of Mandela’s house and watched an increasingly large throng of people sing, dance, clap and shout, “Tata Madiba, Tata Madiba.” I quickly learned that “Nelson” was a name given to Mandela only when he started colonial education. His name is Rolihlahla Mandela of the Madiba clan, Madiba for short. Knowing this solved a puzzle for me: How is it that someone from generations of royal Xhosa lineage would be named “Nelson”?

While I was at Freedom Park, I had elected to participate in an African American re-naming ceremony. I wanted an indigenous African name. As Toni Morrison writes, names should “bear witness.” Although my tongue that has studied only Germanic and Romance languages has trouble with the clicks of Xhosa and stumbles over difficult, non-western consonant clusters, I, nevertheless, wanted to be given a name that resonated with my life experience. There is something significantly different, something obviously lost in the Middle Passage, about names such as Leroy, Rufus, Ann and Elizabeth, when compared to Mqondisi, Ndumiso, Zotiswa and Phumzile. The eve before I found out that “Nelson” was “Madiba,” “Valerie” became “Lumnka” and my husband, “James,” became “Manqoba.”

A group of women sing on the front lawn of Mandiba's (Mandela's) Houghton home in Johannesburg on the morning after the former president's death.
A group of women sing on the front lawn of Madiba’s (Mandela’s) Houghton home in Johannesburg on the morning after the former president’s death.

In addition to visiting what was Madiba’s current home, I visited his former Soweto residence, which sits on the only street in the world where the homes of two Nobel Prize winners are directly across from one another: Madiba’s and Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu’s. I went to many celebrations and had the opportunity to sign the condolence guest books on behalf of the Office of Diversity and Inclusion and the Office of Outreach and Engagement in both Johannesburg and Cape Town. Surrounded by mountains, festooned by palm trees, and hemmed by both the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, Cape Town is where I spent most of my time. I listened to every news broadcast and was amazed that rather than just giving the facts with a human interest story thrown in here and there as with our American news, all of the broadcasts focused on interviewing anyone who had something to say about Madiba, and everyone, young and old, black and white, victim and perpetrator, had a story. The value placed on storytelling is extraordinary, and the stories Madiba’s former enemies shared stressed that even as they fought against him, they were in awe of him. It’s one thing when your friends describe you in Messianic terms; it’s even more riveting when your prison guards wonder, “What manner of man is this?” Madiba followed his often-voiced philosophy: “defeat one’s enemies without dishonoring them.” He told his enemies, “Your freedom and my freedom cannot be separated.”

During the course of my stay I bought every South African newspaper that I could find, visited the Apartheid Museum, and rode on Rovos Train — a train that during Apartheid was for whites only. (My discomfort on this luxurious train, a train whose tracks run parallel to the trains historically reserved for blacks, is another essay).

Yes, I was blessed once again to have been in Africa at a propitious moment. Although the jet lag on my return trip unsettled me for a good week, I finally have shrugged off the South African time zone. What I have not been able to shake off has been my visit to Robben Island, a prison from which no one ever escaped. I can’t ever see myself returning there. I saw the hard-labor limestone quarry where the brightness of the sunlight damaged Madiba’s eyes, making reading difficult, and where the dust of the stone filled his lungs, making his breathing labored. Yet, Madiba and his other educated comrades made the quarry their own university, surreptitiously teaching to read and write the hardened criminals who were treated better than they were. I saw copies of the kitchen menus where the black prisoners were given food rations based on how light- or dark-skinned they were. It would be seven years before Madiba would receive a piece of bread. He was permitted one letter and one visitor per six-month period. Although I took pictures outside of his cell, a cell half the size of the cells of the guard dogs, the experience of seeing where he spent 20-some years of his life, a life of silence and isolation, returning not as an insane, vengeful tyrant, but as the first democratic president of a new South Africa, answered all the questions that my tour guide had tried to explain to me. Inclusivity means making all 11 languages South Africa’s official language. Inclusivity means placing all colors on the nation’s flag. Inclusivity means everyone has a story.

As vice provost for Diversity and Inclusion, the word “inclusion” does not roll off of my tongue as easily as it formerly did. I can’t think of inclusion without thinking of Madiba, and I can’t think of Madiba without thinking of dignity, respect, freedom, and yes, forgiveness.

Previously published in onCampus.


About the author

Valerie Lee
Valerie Lee - lee.89@osu.edu
Vice Provost for Diversity and Inclusion; Vice President for Outreach and Engagement; Chief Diversity Officer

Dr. Valerie Lee holds the distinction of having chaired two Ohio State departments: the Department of Women’s Studies (now Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies) for two years and the Department of English for seven years. In addition to her appointment as full professor in the Department of English, Dr. Lee holds courtesy appointments in: African American and African Studies, Comparative Studies, Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, the Center for Folklore Studies, and the Center for Interdisciplinary Law and Policy Studies.

Dr. Lee is the recipient of Ohio State’s highest teaching award, the Alumni Award for Distinguished Teaching, as well as Ohio State’s highest service award, the Faculty Award for Distinguished University Service. She has authored numerous books and journal articles. For the last 20 years, she has served as the executive director of Womanist Readers, a community group devoted to reading African American Literature and providing outreach activities to the larger Columbus community. 

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