Hundreds gathered at Sproul Plaza on Saturday afternoon for a memorial service celebrating the life and work of Nelson Mandela, a former president of South Africa and a leader of the anti-apartheid movement who passed away Dec. 5.
Chancellor Nicholas Dirks began the memorial by speaking about UC Berkeley’s role in the anti-apartheid and divestment movement during the 1980s. Student speakers later took to the stage to urge audience members to take Mandela’s teaching to heart and to use his life as reservoir of inspiration to draw from in the face of the many struggles students face today.
Mandela spent 27 years in a political prison for opposing South Africa’s apartheid policies. In the 1980s, UC Berkeley students echoed his sentiments by leading an anti-apartheid movement and marching on the steps of Sproul Plaza. The UC Board of Regents acquiesced to the demands of the protests and voted to divest funds from South Africa in 1986.
“When Mandela was in prison, they hid his body but not his voice,” said California State Assembly Speaker John Perez to the crowd. “And you saw that voice come to life here as students and faculty came together to demonstrate to the university not to invest in resources that supported an apartheid government. They found a voice for themselves.”
In his 1990 speech at the Oakland Coliseum, Mandela forever connected his legacy with UC Berkeley by acknowledging the instrumental impact the student-led anti-apartheid movement had in inspiring democracy in South Africa.
Marcel Jones and Gabby Shuman, members of the Black Student Union, gave a rousing speech that highlighted the struggles of today’s students. Among the issues they brought up were the lack of diversity on campus and the resentment felt by some undocumented student advocates toward the appointment of UC President Janet Napolitano.
“I think it’s really important to bring marginalized people together in settings like these because our struggles are interconnected,” Shuman said. “There will be no true equity unless all those issues are addressed.”
Perez and Assemblymember Nancy Skinner, both of whom attended UC Berkeley, recalled their involvement in the 1980s protests. Perez told the audience his achievements as a politician are largely due to his involvement with the divestment movement during his time at UC Berkeley.
Last week, UC Berkeley Real Estate Services staff member Anne Stinson started a campaign to change the name of Lower Sproul Plaza, which is currently under construction, to Mandela Plaza. Stinson, who participated in the divestment and anti-apartheid protests, said renaming the plaza to honor Mandela would highlight the connection between the campus and Mandela.
“My fear is that the campus’ well-documented history in this regard will somehow fade away with the passing of the honorable Nelson Rohlilahla Mandela,” Stinson said in an email. “Future generations of Cal students and their (families) should be able to stand in ‘Mandela Plaza’ and be reminded of this venerable institution’s role in bringing about a change to South Africa.”