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Mandela’s life, local ties celebrated

Civic leaders, activists, and human­i­tar­ians con­vened in North­eastern University’s Blackman Audi­to­rium on Thursday after­noon to honor the life and legacy of Nelson Man­dela, the former South African pres­i­dent and anti-​​apartheid icon who died last month at the age of 95.

The 90-​​minute cer­e­mony fea­tured a video col­lage from Mandela’s release from prison in 1990 and his sub­se­quent visit to Boston; a trio of moving per­for­mances by the Boston Children’s Chorus; and poignant remarks from more than half a dozen friends, admirers, and protégés.

The event was co-​​sponsored by the Col­lege of Social Sci­ences and Human­i­ties; the School of Law; and South Africa Part­ners, a Boston-​​based non­profit orga­ni­za­tion ded­i­cated to fos­tering rela­tion­ships between the U.S. and South Africa. Mary Tieso, its exec­u­tive director, served as the emcee.

Speakers, ranging from state Rep. Byron Rushing to Rev. Nancy Taylor of Boston’s Old South Church, described Man­dela as a com­pas­sionate leader and high­lighted his indelible con­nec­tion to the city and to North­eastern. The uni­ver­sity awarded Man­dela an hon­orary Doctor of Laws degree in absentia in May of 1988, while he served his 27-​​​​year jail sen­tence. On June 23, 1990, just four months after he was released from prison, the man they called Madiba addressed some 250,000 sup­porters who filled the Hatch Shell on the Charles River Esplanade, telling them, “I am espe­cially grateful to you, the people of Mass­a­chu­setts, for helping to lead the fight in this country for democ­racy in South Africa.” Three years later, North­eastern law pro­fessor Mar­garet Burnham was appointed by her mentor to an inter­na­tional human rights com­mis­sion to inves­ti­gate alleged human rights vio­la­tions within the African National Congress.

“We here in Boston have a spe­cial rela­tion­ship with Madiba,” noted Burham, the director of Northeastern’s Civil Rights and Restora­tive Jus­tice Project. Like Man­dela, she said, “We must realize that none of us is free so long as many of us are without ade­quate edu­ca­tion, without ade­quate health­care, without per­sonal safety, without food, without a reli­able and inclu­sive democ­racy. On Man­dela Day, which will soon come, and indeed on every day, let us honor the Man­dela within us” by working to make the world a better place. 

Lenna Assaf is doing her part. After working as an Eng­lish teacher while studying abroad in South Africa, she con­nected with City Year Boston, the education-​​based non­profit orga­ni­za­tion. Today, she tutors chil­dren at the Orchard Gar­dens K-​​8 School in Boston’s Rox­bury neighborhood.

“I serve with City Year to carry on Mandela’s legacy, to live his ideas, and con­tribute to making this world a better place for all its cit­i­zens,” Assaf said. “While Madiba may be gone, I know he lives within me.”

Man­dela and Mass­a­chu­setts Gov. Patrick share more than a few social and polit­ical traits. According to Tieso, both men “come from loving fam­i­lies and humble begin­nings and saw the law as a pillar of democ­racy that must be nur­tured and protected.”

Patrick, for his part, mar­veled at Mandela’s lim­it­less capacity for love and rec­on­cil­i­a­tion, saying that, “leading by love might be the most pow­erful kind of lead­er­ship and Man­dela might be the best modern example.”

“We could use more of that mes­sage right now,” he added, “with so much hurt in the midst of so much joy, so much despair in the midst of so much hope.”

Hope was a recur­ring theme throughout the cer­e­mony. Flanked by the U.S. and South African flags, the Boston Children’s Chorus sang, “Can you see? Look into my eyes. Can you feel? My hand is reaching. Give us hope and we’ll show you the way.”

Fol­lowing Mandela’s death, the North­eastern com­mu­nity gath­ered in the Sacred Space to remember the beloved leader. Fac­ulty mem­bers also shared their thoughts and mem­o­ries of Man­dela.

– By Jason Kornwitz

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