A quarter century after Yale students protested against Apartheid, the South African national anthem rang out across Beinecke Plaza in commemoration of the life of Nelson Mandela.
Nearly 100 students and other members of the Yale community, holding candles, huddled in the frigid cold Sunday evening to reflect on the life and legacy of the former South African president, who died on Thursday at the age of 95. As they lit each other’s candles, those at the vigil spoke of Mandela’s impact on the world, on South Africa and on themselves.
“As he became a beacon he gave us all the opportunity to find our own moral centers,” Yale College Dean Mary Miller, who offered a reflection, said.
The vigil was organized by the Yale Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and included speeches by three senior University administrators – Yale College Dean Mary Miller, University Secretary Kimberly Goff-Crews and Dean of Student Affairs Marichal Gentry – as well as a performance by the Shades a cappella group.
All of the reflections described Mandela’s legacy as one of forgiveness and reconciliation.
“Not only did he prepare a table for his enemies,” University President Peter Salovey said in a note read by Goff-Crews, “he invited them to sit down to talk.”
For some at the event, Mandela’s legacy intersected directly with their own lives. Goff-Crews said that among the senior administrators, nearly all recalled protesting the apartheid regime while in college.
Michael Morand ’87 DIV ’93, the University’s Deputy Chief Communications Officer, was a leader in the movement, now 25 years in the past, to convince Yale to divest from South Africa during apartheid. He recalled visiting Mandela’s cell on Robben Island – where Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years – and only then understanding the “courage, grace and dignity that was Mandela.”
“Nelson Mandela embodies hope — not some empty, otherworldly hope, but real hope. Active hope. Hope that makes change. Hope that endures,” Morand said.
Despite being at most only a few years old when Mandela was released from prison in 1990, students at the vigil described the former president as a transformation in their views of justice and activism.
Frankie Costa ’14 said Mandela’s significance lay in the fact that he transformed something once considered radical – racial equality in South Africa – into something now considered “sacrosanct.”
“There was an Onion article about Nelson Mandela being the first politician to be missed,” Quyen Do ’16 said. “That’s true for me.”