From Human Rights Program Executive Director Susan Gzesh: some personal reflections on Human Rights Day 2013

December 10th was Human Rights Day, the 65th Anniversary of the United Nations’ approval of the Universal Declaration for Human Rights – and the memorial service for Nelson Mandela, one of the great human rights statesmen of his era. Mandela and the African National Congress waged one of the largest-scale successful fights for human rights of the 20th Century. For my generation of American activists committed to anti-racism and justice, Mandela and the African National Congress provided us inspiration. Mandela’s ideals will serve as a model for advocates for human rights and human dignity for generations to come.

I have a few personal reflections about what my generation and yours might learn from Mandela’s example:

  • The ANC encouraged international solidarity; its exiles worked with student movements, religious organizations, and labor unions to pressure the apartheid regime from the outside. Many US universities, for example, were successfully pressured by their students and faculty to divest their portfolios of investments in South Africa. Union pension funds withdrew their support as well. During the divestment campaign, UChicago alumni set up an escrow fund for contributions alumni would otherwise have made to the U of C – which ultimately did not divest. Mandela cited the U.S. divestment campaign for its contribution to the eventual downfall of apartheid.    

The lesson: international solidarity matters!  

  • The Reagan administration supported the apartheid government and considered Mandela and the ANC leadership to be “terrorists.” In 1983 I represented Northwestern University Professor Dennis Brutus, a South African poet and anti-apartheid activist, in deportation proceedings where he applied for political asylum. The Brutus case became a rallying point for the anti-apartheid movement. The Reagan Administration fought hard to expel Brutus from the U.S. - where he had led a successful campaign to expel South Africa from the Olympics. Brutus was granted political asylum after a two-week trial in which then-exiled lawyer Albie Sachs testified that Brutus would be in danger even if returned to Zimbabwe (where he held dual nationality) because of the South African Security Forces’ record of assassinations in the so-called “frontline States. ” Sachs’ testimony about the danger to Brutus eerily foreshadowed the 1988 bomb attack on Sachs himself in Mozambique. Brutus later returned to a free South Africa and died there, at home, in 2009.  

The lesson: be careful to look beyond the label “terrorist.”

  • The ANC was anti-racialist and embraced the support of all who would join their fight – blacks, whites, “coloured,” South Asian immigrants, nationalists, socialists, democrats, and communists. Our family was particularly proud of the large representation of Jews among the white leaders and supporters of the ANC – and included mention of them in our Passover seders.

The lesson: anti-racialism is a key to unity and strength.  

  • In the last years before the release of Mandela, ANC lawyers traveled to the U.S. to meet U.S. lawyers and law professors to discuss their plans for the post-apartheid Constitution and courts. As a young lawyer, I was awed by their brilliance and courage in their defense of justice in the face of unjust laws. I was lucky enough to meet both Albie Sachs and the late Dullah Omar, the Minister of Justice in Mandela’s first cabinet.

The lesson: lawyers can play a role both in the struggle for justice and in its administration. 

  • Mandela was not a pacifist. When the violence of the apartheid regime pushed the African National Congress into an armed response, he was unapologetic, saying "We believed that as a result of Government policy, violence by the African people had become inevitable, and that unless responsible leadership was given to canalize and control the feelings of our people, there would be outbreaks of terrorism which would produce an intensity of bitterness and hostility between the various races of this country which is not produced even by war” (Mandela's statement in the Rivonia trials, April 20, 1964). Almost unique among armed resistance movements in the 20th Century, the Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation) never violated the Geneva Conventions, consistently refrained from attacks on innocent civilians, and limited their armed actions to targets such as military installations and public works (utilities, bridges, etc.). By 1994, its troops had been integrated into the South African Defense Forces.

The lesson: even in war, principles of human decency can be maintained. 

  • The Constitution of the new South African government includes economic, social, and cultural rights as well as civil rights – thus embracing the whole of human rights. As a US-trained lawyer, South Africa’s example in the mid-1990s gave me a new perspective on the possibilities of judicial enforcement of fundamental principles of human dignity.

The lesson: Human rights provide broad support for human dignity and justice, adding substance to our U.S. framework of due process and anti-discrimination.

Nelson Mandela set an example of principled leadership for human rights. Long live Madiba!