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Nelson Mandela, the man and a movement

This editorial originally appeared in the Dec. 19 issue of the New York Teacher.

He was a great man who became an international symbol of the fight for peace, justice and freedom.

But Nelson Mandela, who died this month at age 95, was also a generous and humble person quick to acknowledge that the credit for South Africa’s transformation into a multiracial democracy could not go to him alone.

He knew that South Africa was freed from its racist apartheid system by a movement, not the actions of a single man.

Nelson Mandela showed an appreciation of the power of collective action throughout his life, as a resistance fighter, a leader of the African National Congress and an architect of the campaign for international sanctions against South Africa.

Unions, of course, are built on this principle that the power of many is greater than the power of one.

And our union played a part in the international divestment campaign championed by Nelson Mandela as a way to apply pressure on South Africa’s then-white government to end apartheid.

The UFT in the 1980s passed a resolution urging the Teachers’ Retirement System to divest its holdings in companies that did business in South Africa.

After conducting a study on how to divest in a way that would not harm TRS members, the retirement system in the late 1980s joined other institutions around the world in divesting.

Nelson Mandela knew that mass movements bring change. But he also showed the power of the individual.

As President Obama said in his Dec. 10 eulogy, “He tells us what is possible not just in the pages of history books but in our own lives as well.”

Nelson Mandela’s unique combination of qualities — he was shrewd and smart while also optimistic and forgiving — allowed him to lead South Africa through a peaceful transition to democracy and avoid a violent civil war.

He was a symbol, a leader of a movement and a man, known in his country as Madiba, who was loved around the world.