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Northeastern students meet Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela's former cellmate in South Africa

Posted by Your Town  July 19, 2013 03:10 PM

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A class of Northeastern University students traveling in South Africa met with Nobel Prize winner Desmond Tutu and a former cellmate of Nelson Mandela this week.

The students said in a Skype interview today that both discussions centered on the anti-apartheid movement and Mandela’s legacy. Mandela, the former president of South Africa and leader of the anti-apartheid revolution, has been in the news most recently because of his rapidly deteriorating health.

The students said that Ahmed Kathrada, Mandela’s cellmate for 26 years, was clearly devoted to Mandela.

Kelly Ward, a Northeastern international affairs major, said that when one student asked him who else could have served as the leader of the anti-apartheid movement, he answered that “there would not have been another.”

“He didn’t even entertain the question,” Ward said.

Conrad Cheeks, a finance and entrepreneurship major, described Kathrada as a humble and soft-spoken man.

“When he was there, a sense of optimism was brought to the room,” said Cheeks, 20. “He kept telling us that it was in our hands to continue his legacy of living in a non-racial society.”

Ward said that meeting Kathrada was “emotional and moving.”

“When I saw Kathrada I welled up inside a little bit, and at the end when I thanked him I just stuttered over myself,” she said. “I was very overwhelmed with all this person had done for their country and for the world.”

Kristin Seidman, a marketing and social entrepreneurship major, said that although their discussion with Tutu was shorter, he was honest and made the class laugh.

“He was really engaging and interested in speaking to us from the heart,” said Seidman, 21.

The class of 42 students from Northeastern's Social Enterprise Institute will be in Cape Town, South Africa, until the end of the month, led by Professor Dennis Shaughnessy. The coursework focuses on social enterprise and working with local entrepreneurs.

The students celebrated Nelson Mandela Day, which is also his birthday, on Thursday. They completed a series of service projects with other South Africans. It is a tradition to do at least 67 minutes of community service on Mandela Day, in honor of the 67 years Mandela fought against apartheid.

Laura Mueller-Soppart, a political science and economics major, added that meeting these political figures taught her that Mandela did not think of himself as the president, but as another prisoner and activist fighting for racial justice.

"He never regarded himself as a leader," she said. "He always regarded himself as part of the whole."

Cheeks added that the week did not change his opinion of Mandela, but that "it helped our understanding and gave us a better appreciation of what these people have done as a collective group to build a great future."

Katherine Landergan can be reached at For campus news updates, follow her on Twitter @klandergan.

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