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UNI professor reflects on Mandela’s legacy

Jul 15, 2013

CEDAR FALLS, Iowa (AP) — University of Northern Iowa professor Ronelle Langley said she grew up in South Africa with a sense of "ubuntu."

Translated from Bantu, one of the country's many languages, the word roughly means "a sense of community." It is a philosophy championed by former president of South Africa Nelson Mandela, 94, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate and humanitarian leader who is critically ill at a hospital in Pretoria.

"Ubuntu means you are human by being with other humans. It's a very real sense of caring and unselfishness," she told the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier. "The altruism of the African culture is the most sincere of all."

Langley, of Cape Town, is the wife of Cedar Falls Mayor Jon Crews. She grew up during a period of deep racial division under an apartheid government in South Africa that enforced strict racial segregation and political and economic discrimination against non-whites. She remembers rejecting those social norms at a young age.

She recalled learning to read signs over benches that said "Whites Only," and turning to her black nanny whom she fondly called "Nana," said, "When you're with me, I want you to sit with me."

Mandela came to symbolize the anti-apartheid struggle by stirring resistance to the white-dominated government. He was eventually arrested and sentenced to life in prison at Robben Island, located nine miles off the shore of Cape Town, where he spent 18 of his 27 years of his imprisonment doing hard labor in a limestone quarry.

Langley said she only really connected with Mandela after her first visit to the prison. She read Mandela's book of letters written from within his cell called 'Conversations with Myself.'

"I was touched by his wisdom and sincerity as he shared his inner self, almost like a journal to his loved ones and friends," Langley said.

Langley now teaches at UNI's College of Business Administration and takes a group of students each year to South Africa to study global skills and business. But she always schedules a visit to Robben Island so her students gain a personal understanding of Mandela's legacy.

Alyssa Plunkett, a former UNI student, served as Langley's South Africa program assistant and visited Robben Island twice.

"The quarry was incredibly eye-opening as I envisioned men working from sunup until sundown for no other reason than torture for their political activism," she said.

She also studied for a semester in 2011 at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in Eastern Cape Town. Plunkett took courses on the apartheid system, learning about the social and political turmoil of the country during Mandela's transition from a criminal to a leader.

"Many black political leaders rightfully had deep hatred for the white people that thrived under brutal apartheid systems. However, Mandela encouraged collaboration and reconciliation between black and white South Africans," she said. "I cannot compare him to any other American political figure because I'm not sure we have one."

Langley said there is tension in her country as it prepares to lose its former leader, but she clings to words spoken this week by the country's Minister in the Presidency Trevor Manuel, "We must carry forward his legacy ... Everyone has to be a Nelson Mandela."

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