Ten years ago, I spent a wonderful summer surrounded by fellow academics discussing the Philosophy of Math at an NEH seminar. During the course of the seminar, one colleague asked the question of “what is the middle number?” We decided that the “middle number” was, in fact, zero, as that number was surrounded on both sides by integers and the negatives of those integers. Indeed, each integer could be said to have an opposite, found on the number line on the opposite side of zero.
I thought of this concept recently when I was reminded of debates I took part in while in high school. I recall that one of the topics discussed made me aware of a reality that was found in a country on the other side of the globe, a country of which I had previously had no knowledge. That country was South Africa, and, as I learned as a teenager that semester, it was perhaps best known for its practice of apartheid.
That semester my English class broke us into teams, each taking a different side of an issue and arguing it. Of course, there was the debate about abortion, and I had the job of defending the existence of the modern state of Israel, something I had never previously thought twice about. But looking back, I am most surprised that the issue of apartheid was the topic of yet another debate. That means that while one team criticized apartheid, another group of teenagers, like the negative numbers on the other side of zero, had to defend it. This was when I first became aware of the practice, and was long before the days when some of the most precious people in my family would be ones who traced some of their heritage back to Africa (although, as is often the case, we do not know from which countries their ancestors were kidnapped.) It was also the first time I heard of the name “Nelson Mandela.”
I learned that Nelson Mandela was being held as a political prisoner for his work in trying to eliminate the system of apartheid, which, similar to some laws once found in the United States, was a codified system of discrimination instituted by the European minority in a country that was predominately African. The analogy between Nelson Mandela and the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was easy to make. Both had been willing to endure imprisonment for the sake of a cause in which they believed.
As a graduate student in Boston many years later, I accompanied some friends to a presentation of African music; they had just returned from two years of volunteer work in Cameroon, and I looked forward to hearing the music that had been the background melody to their exciting experience. I enjoyed the music, most of which was played on drums, but was especially moved by what happened at the end of the program. As the show drew to a close, the last people to play began to play a song on their drums that I had never heard before, but which most people there were very familiar with. I don’t remember most of the words, but the refrain was simple.
It sang “Free Nelson Mandela”, and as the group on the stage sang it, the people in the chairs stood up, sang along and danced. Many danced in their chairs, but many more went out into the isles and down near the stage to dance their hearts out to a call for justice that seemed so simple. Of course, Nelson Mandela should be freed. However, it would take a few years. The Nobel Peace Prize winner was finally was released from prison in 1990, after 27 years in captivity.
When I, an economist, married years later, I was able to see the connection between European colonialism and the economic situation in which many of the countries on the African continent found themselves. It was this insight that led me and my husband to choose an alternative engagement ring when we married. Did not buying a diamond either directly or indirectly from the De Beers cartel have any real effect on world politics? Probably not, but I do recall that South Africa held its first democratic elections the month of my wedding. Although the remnants of codified racism still affect the country, it was able to take a step towards democracy. The president they elected was the man I had learned about as a teenager, the former prisoner of conscience, Nelson Mandela.
Nelson Mandela is in his last days, and does not have much longer to live. A great man with vision will soon be leaving this world, and will be missed. I am grateful, however, for the role he played in making this world a better place for my daughter and her peers to grow up and live in.