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December 11, 2013

Outside the Box: Mandela’s passing is a reminder to stand up for what you believe in

Writer’s note: I am a journalist in academia, a woman who has traveled among many cultures. I live outside the box and I like it — and I want to share my perspective with you every Thursday.

One of my all-time favorite photographs — as a photojournalist and a human being — is by Michael Williamson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer for The Washington Post. As a moment and photograph, the image takes my breath away and makes me smile. Williamson shot it in 1994 in a village during a presidential campaign stop not long before the country’s first democratic elections.

It’s shot from a low angle on a sky-blue, sunny South African day. It shows two girls in their school uniforms — hands uplifted in dance, faces lit by sunshine and smiles. In the center, framed between them, is Nelson Mandela — dancing with the same sunshine and joy on his face.

Last Thursday, I was sitting in Allegheny’s final faculty meeting of the semester. I received a text from a colleague: Nelson Mandela died. I immediately checked multiple news sites on my phone to confirm the information. I waited for a moment to make an announcement.

I raised my hand and announced that Nelson Mandela had died at home. A few moments passed, and then the conversation returned to curriculum. I didn’t think I would need to ask for a moment of silence on a liberal arts campus for this icon of human rights, revolution and reconciliation. I was wrong.

Later that night, I attended the rehearsal for the African Student Association’s fashion show fundraiser for HIV/AIDS awareness. I brought color photocopies of Williamson’s photograph. When I shared the news of Mandela’s death, several students stopped what they were doing and looked up. One student’s hands went first to her face — then to her heart. I was grateful to be among the students.

Nelson Mandela’s life has been stitched through my own life. As an adolescent, I remember the images from the June 16, 1976, uprisings in Soweto, when high school students rose up in protest and the police killed hundreds of them.

In college, I remember the discussions and dissensions around boycotting companies doing business in apartheid South Africa. And President Ronald Reagan vetoed proposed sanctions.

People of my parents’ generation remember exactly where they were when they learned President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. I know exactly where I was when Mandela walked free after 27 years in prison. I was in Aswan, Egypt, covering a UNESCO event and photographing Princess Caroline of Monaco, Queen Noor of Jordan and Suzanne Mubarak, the first lady of Egypt. I wanted to be in South Africa.

That day’s photograph showed Mandela with his right hand raised in a fist, with his wife, Winnie, by his side, her left hand raised in a fist. That image, that moment, told me that if Mandela were free, there was hope for our world.

In May 1990, I covered Mandela’s visit to Cairo University to accept an honorary degree in political science. I photographed as students swarmed the lectern after his speech. They reached for his hand, clapped him on the back. I broke my journalist’s protocol and approached the podium when I’d finishing shooting. I introduced myself and said thank you. And I shook his hand.

I remember his grace and glow; his eyes, his mouth, his face smiled.

In 1994, the news photos showed long lines of black South Africans weaving along the ridges of hills for as far as an eye could see. They waited hours and days to cast their first vote. They voted for Mandela.

When Mandela won the mandate, I was beyond joy. I was bursting with joy and hope. If Mandela could move in his lifetime from protest to prison to the presidency, all things were truly possible.

He was not perfect — none of us are. That makes me love him all the more.

My parents raised me with a code of conduct, of honor — and regular reminders that the road ahead would be hard. Do the right thing, even when it’s not popular, even when you’re alone in the storm. It is imperative to be honest and be true to who you are and what you believe. There will be many times when it’s tough to do. When others won’t stand with you. When those you thought were friends will scatter, leaving you solo. Even then, it’s important to do the right thing.

When I encountered tough times, I thought of Nelson Mandela and his unwavering commitment to his principles, in the face of persecution, when threatened with death.

As a photojournalist and a human being, I appreciate his light. He claimed a moral ground. He was steadfast and resolute. He was tough with a tender heart. He had a vision for humanity and a keen eye for human beings.

On Monday, about 35 students, staff members and faculty gathered in the Tippie Alumni Center to pay tribute to Mandela and share moments from history and personal memories. We listened to the South African singer Miriam Makeba, who reminded us in song: “A Luta Continua.” The struggle continues.

Indeed. It is not enough to talk about diversity and social justice. To talk about inclusivity and equity. We must walk it. We must breathe it. We must stand up for it and stand vigil for it. In our everyday lives. In our every moment.

Mandela has died; his light shines on. We are called to carry that light into the world.

Cheryl Hatch is a writer, photojournalist and visiting assistant professor of journalism in the public interest at Allegheny College.

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