Hope, imagination, faith have let South Africans move forward

Last July, my wife and I arrived in Pretoria at the site where Nelson Mandela was hospitalized, where thousands were camped out fearing, waiting, singing, praying, imagining what would occur after Mandela passed into eternity.

Ironically, we were escorted by a guide who had previously served as a member of Mandela’s security force. I was deeply moved to hear this middle-aged white Afrikaner talk about how much his community had grown to respect and admire this man who had been considered a danger to their way of life. His words left me speechless: “We grew to realize that this man would be our savior too. He was every South African’s bridge to the future. We needed that bridge to go forward.” The words are another example of how special is the modern nation of South Africa that is built on a hope and moral imagination.

The community that nurtured Mandela was the foundation of that hope and sparked the beginning of that imagination. We should all know the name of John Dube, Mandela’s mentor and a founder of the African National Congress in 1912. Dube was a blend between Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. DuBois, and the radical Christian preacher and Georgia-based African Methodist Episcopal Bishop Henry McNeal Turner.

Dube founded a school in 1900 called the Ohlange Institute (originally the Zulu Christian Industrial School) located near the bustling city of Durban. He modeled the school after Tuskegee Institute, founded by Booker T. Washington in 1880. Like Washington, Dube recognized the importance of teaching vocational skills that would support self-reliance among black people who were often devalued for lacking the ability and the means to provide for themselves.

But like DuBois, Dube was committed to the liberal arts education of the mind and the cultivation of leaders who would agitate respectfully for freedom. He did not urge accommodation to racism and the evolving evil of apartheid. He was also a spiritual man who trusted that God was on the side of the oppressed in history.

We also visited the Ohlange High School and saw the place where Mandela chose to cast his first vote in a democratic election in April 1994. Mandela observed that before casting his vote, he thought about all of the leaders who sacrificed their lives so that he could be in that voting booth.

Most fascinating is the fact that Dube and his school are literally just up the road from Mahatma Gandhi’s compound, where that leader spent 20 years.

Gandhi, a Hindu, and Dube, a Christian, were working out their strategies and tactics in proximity and in mutual admiration and awareness of the other. This example of two communities learning, struggling for justice and helping to build a better nation is inspiring for us today.

Robert Franklin is senior adviser on community and diversity to the provost at Emory University.