Local professor who worked to free Mandela recalls lessons in humanity

Dr. Allen Boesak worked to help free Nelson Mandela in South Africa.
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Nelson Mandela visited Indianapolis for the National NAACP conference held in July 1993. Although he didn't spend lots of time in Indiana, Hoosiers are honoring his life and legacy.

Mandela died Thursday at the age of 95.

His own words filled the airwaves at WTLC-AM Friday, as Indiana joined the world in remembering his dedication to humanity.

"The idea of a democratic and free society in which all residents will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities," blared the recording of one of Mandela's speeches. In the studio listening was former State Representative Bill Crawford.

"My admiration for the man grew when he, on principle, suffered 27 years in solitary confinement when he was offered opportunities to turn against his people," said Crawford.

At the Statehouse, flags wave at half-staff to honor the icon whose name is synonymous with the struggle against racial oppression. A statesman who put bitterness aside, rising from prison to prominence as South Africa's first black president.

"To hear yesterday that he's finally gone, that's something I'm still struggling with in my own heart," said Dr. Allan Boesak, a renowned South African activist and theologian, now teaching at Butler University and the Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis.

Boesak is himself a student of Mandela's politics, dating back to the uprisings in Soweto in 1976.

"The connection between his spirit and the spirit of our people was an amazing thing. I was just so privileged to be right in the middle of it all," said Boesak, who moved to Indianapolis last year.

As the leader of the United Democratic Front, Boesak worked side-by-side to help free Mandela and pushed for worldwide sanctions to demolish apartheid.

"For the first time, I heard this man's voice," Boesak recalls with amazement. "I saw him, though, laid eyes on him for the first time a few weeks before he was released in 1990."

The strategy, politics and elections are over, but the impact of South Africa's father of democracy remains a gift for generations.

"I treasure the fact that he has taught us that one must be willing to sacrifice for that in which one believes," said Boesak. "If you see that face, if you see that expression, if you see the selflessness and the gentleness in his eyes, that was the real Mandela."

Boesak speaks with affection for the man he saw as a father figure.

The Indiana Statehouse will host a public memorial service on Sunday to honor Mandela.
The service starts at 5 p.m. and will include music and reflections.