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UMass honors Nelson Mandela with honorary degree

Nelson Mandela and his wife Graca Michel are joined by a 12-member University of Massachusetts delegation after a ceremony in the university gave honorary degrees to Mandela and Michel. Behind Mandela's right shoulder is University President Jack M. Wilson.
Nelson Mandela and his wife Graca Michel are joined by a 12-member University of Massachusetts delegation after a ceremony in the university gave honorary degrees to Mandela and Michel. Behind Mandela's right shoulder is University President Jack M. Wilson. (Globe Staff Photo / John Donnelly)

JOHANNESBURG -- He shuffles his feet now. Someone always steadies his left or right elbow. His playful eyes sometimes cloud over.

But Nelson Rohlihlahla Mandela, 87, the global icon of peace and reconciliation and the longtime political prisoner who became president of South Africa in 1994, emerged yesterday from his retirement, as he does every now and then, to receive an honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters from the University of Massachusetts system. The university also granted the same honorary degree to Graca Machel, Mandela's wife and a global leader in education.

Speaking moments later with his diploma in hand, Mandela said: ``To receive this degree -- even though honorary -- is a great honor. My wife and I are very privileged to receive it. Thank you very warmly.''

Machel, who was Mozambique's first education minister after independence from Portugal and is now the chancellor of the University of Cape Town, said that such honors remind her of the ``ever greater responsibility on our shoulders'' to speak out on behalf of ``those who do not have the chance to have their voices heard. We'll try our best.''

The University of Massachusetts has had strong ties with South Africa. It was one of the first American public universities to divest from companies doing business during South Africa's brutal apartheid regime. The university also had a Mandela connection: The former president's daughter, Makaziwe, graduated from UMass-Amherst with a master's degree in sociology in 1989 and a doctorate in anthropology in 1993.

A 12-member university delegation led by President Jack M. Wilson and three members of the Board of Trustees is on a week-long tour of the country that aims to further cement relationships here. Earlier in the week, the university signed research agreements with three South African educational institutions -- the universities of Cape Town, Western Cape, and KwaZulu-Natal -- to study educational and economic advancement, HIV and AIDS, and technological progress.

But the chance to confer degrees on Mandela and Michel was clearly the trip's emotional high point. It was the first time the five-campus university has given system-wide honorary degrees, and the first time the school presented honorary degrees overseas.

``It was hard ... just to maintain my composure,'' Wilson said after the 15-minute ceremony, held in a small auditorium at the Nelson Mandela Foundation in the Houghton area of Johannesburg. Only the day before, Wilson and members of the delegation had visited Robben Island off Cape Town and the maximum security prison in which Mandela was held for 18 of his 27 years in prison.

``When you walk in the footsteps of this man, and stand in his cell, you know how much he must have suffered,'' Wilson said. ``I've had the opportunity to meet one of the great heroes of my life.''

Such emotions are not rare for those who meet Mandela, even as the leader grows increasingly feeble. Foundation staff members say visitors weep when they see him at the center. Some can barely speak. And just about everyone leaves behind a gift for the man known around South Africa by his nickname, Madiba.

Hundreds of the gifts were stacked in one corner of the foundation's lobby yesterday, ready to be trucked around South Africa as a traveling exhibition called ``Izipho: Madiba's Gifts,'' said Verne Harris, project manager of the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory and Commemoration, which aims to ensure that Mandela's legacy is ``rooted in memory and framed by dialogue.'' Izipho is the Xhosa word for gift.

The presents included stacks of paintings; a framed brick from a prison that once held Mandela in 1956; unused green running shoes; and dozens of busts bearing Mandela's likeness, more or less.

Harris picked up one rather poorly constructed bust made of paper mache. On the back was the artist's name: ``Prisoner C. Olckers.''

``He's an Afrikaner who barely speaks any English,'' Harris said of the artist, referring to South Africans of European ancestry who instituted the policy of apartheid, which enforced strict racial segregation and discriminated against non-whites. ``He's in prison for 21 years for murder. But every year he sends Madiba a gift. He's obsessed with him.''

The prisoner is not alone. Many of Mandela's friends still worry about the demands on his time, even as the foundation tries to limit ceremonies to about one a month.

``He's doing fine, but he's slowed down,'' said Ahmed M. Kathrada, 76, who was sentenced to life imprisonment in the infamous Rivonia Trial in 1964 along with Mandela and six other leaders of the anti-apartheid movement.

Kathrada, along with fellow political prisoner Laloo Chiba, attended the ceremony yesterday. ``We put pressure on him to slow down even more, but it's very difficult to get him to do it,'' Kathrada said.

Both Kathrada and Chiba were among a handful of prisoners who aided Mandela in his writing of his autobiography ``Long Walk to Freedom'' while they were all imprisoned at Robben Island. One of Chiba's tasks was to transcribe the final version into miniature handwriting, in order to help smuggle out the pages.

After the university ceremony, Mandela saw his two old friends and his eyes brightened. ``Come over here, come over here,'' he said to the two men, who moved close to him for a gentle hug.

As Mandela slowly walked toward the door, he had the makings of memories all about him -- his friends from prison, his new honorary degree (at least his 75th, according to Harris), and even new gifts -- two Revere silver bowls, one for him, one for his wife, each inscribed, ``University of Massachusetts.''

John Donnelly can be reached at

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