Counseling Today, Online Exclusives

Reflecting on Nelson Mandela

Compiled by Bethany Bray December 17, 2013

South-Africa-heart When South African President Jacob Zuma announced that Nelson Mandela had died Dec. 5, he said, “Our people have lost a father.”

Mandela, South Africa’s first black president and champion of human rights, leaves behind a legacy of reconciliation. His message and inspiration have rippled across the globe, including in the counseling profession.

“Mr. Mandela will be missed, but we who remain are given an extraordinary opportunity to carry on his mission of reconciliation — not just in South Africa but here in the U.S. as well,” says American Counseling Association President Cirecie West-Olatunji.

Mandela passed away at age 95. An anti-apartheid activist who spent 27 years in prison, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993.

West-Olatunji, a professor at the University of Cincinnati, led groups of counselors on outreach trips to South Africa in 2007 and 2009. In 2009, the group heard Mandela speak at a birthday celebration for the beloved leader in Johannesburg.

“It was a beautiful moment in time that I will never forget,” West-Olatunji says. “More importantly, I cherished the fact that I shared this moment with my students and colleagues.”

West-Olatunji wrote the following remembrance of Mandela and his legacy.

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My knowledge of Nelson Mandela began in the 1980s with my awareness of the work of Randall Robinson and his TransAfrica organization as part of the global Free Mandela movement. As a recent graduate from college, I was curious and very much identified with the freedom movement in South Africa, as it mirrored the civil rights campaign here at home. I tried to learn as much as I could about South Africa. I read Cry, the Beloved Country and saw the musical Sarafina! on Broadway. Later, as a parent, I shared my understanding of South Africa’s history with my children. I remember watching an after-school special on television, The Color of Friendship (2000), with my daughter who was 12 years old at the time. It was about the relationship between an African American girl and the exchange student who comes to live in her home, a girl from apartheid South Africa.

I never imagined that in 2007 and 2009, I would lead outreach delegations to South Africa and Botswana. We toured sites in and around Johannesburg such as the Apartheid Museum, Hector Pieterson Museum, Nelson Mandela’s home where he and Winnie raised their children and Robben Island off of the coast of Cape Town. I find it very hard to describe the visit to the Apartheid Museum. We cried, we hugged, we talked and we prayed. We sat alone and mourned the loss of not just Nelson Mandela but all of the political prisoners and the oppressed. We were horrified when confronted with the inhuman acts and rejoiced in the triumph of reconciliation. The experience was overwhelming and somewhat disorienting for most of us.

The visit to the Hector Pieterson Museum caused less of a visceral response but was no less disheartening. To read about and view the artifacts from the Soweto uprising (1976) was difficult to accept. It reminded me of the school-aged children in the South who marched and boycotted their schools, challenging the ideals of “separate but equal.”

Walking through Nelson Mandela’s home was awe-inspiring. We talked in hushed tones as we read every plaque on the walls and squinted at the photos on display. It was an honor and a privilege to be there. However, nothing prepared us for the trip to Robben Island.

I think that everyone in the U.S. should take a trip to Robben Island to see where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned. Our tour guide was a former political prisoner who shared time there with Nelson Mandela. He spoke of the lessons that he learned under Mr. Mandela’s leadership, even in prison. Nelson Mandela taught him to maintain his dignity as a human being and to continue to work against oppression, toward the political liberation of South African people. Our tour guide shared with us that, after being released from prison, he stayed on the island and now lives next door to one of his former prison guards, now a friend. The delegation members discussed this idea of reconciliation at length that evening and many evenings thereafter. We realized that Nelson Mandela had planted a seed that was (re)humanizing.

When I returned to South Africa and Botswana in 2009 with a new delegation of counselors, we had the opportunity to actually celebrate Nelson Mandela’s birthday in a public square in Johannesburg with ordinary people who came to honor a legend. There were many politicians and community organizers there who spoke and, then, to everyone’s surprise, Nelson Mandela himself stepped to the podium to thank us all for coming in his honor. The crowd went wild with joy. We danced together and hugged strangers and became part of the sea of well-wishers. It was a beautiful moment in time that I will never forget. More importantly, I cherished the fact that I shared this moment with my students and colleagues.

Mr. Mandela will be missed, but we who remain are given an extraordinary opportunity to carry on his mission of reconciliation — not just in South Africa but here in the U.S. as well.

 

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Follow Cirecie on Twitter: @Dr_CWO

 

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Bethany Bray is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at bbray@counseling.org

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