Karl Douglass: The day I learned about Nelson Mandela

December 7, 2013 

Spending the night in the shantytown on Beinecke Plaza was all the rage when I was a freshman in college. I didn't get it. But, when a girl I liked said she planned to spend a Friday night there, I decided I would, too.

I expected spending the night in a shanty to be like going camping. It wasn't. What we actually did was stand guard. Apparently, the original shantytown had been torn down by the university the spring before I arrived at school. The president of the university ultimately allowed the shantytown to be rebuilt, but to insure that it wouldn't be taken down again, students set up a system that kept someone in the shanties 24 hours a day.

At this point I am sure you are asking why there was a shantytown on campus in the first place. That's the same question I had. So, as I spent the night at the shantytown with the girl I liked, I asked her, "What's this all about anyway?"

After she was finished being irritated with me, she explained that the shantytown was a replica of the shantytowns in Soweto. It was built by students to protest South Africa's apartheid system of government and call for the university to divest the money it had invested in companies that did business in South Africa. "Haven't you ever heard of Nelson Mandela?" she asked.

"No," I said.

That's when she threw a stack of pamphlets at me.

First, I ducked. Then, I picked one of the pamphlets up. On the front was information about the horrors of the apartheid system and how the university was in violation of its own ethical investment principles by investing in companies that did business with South Africa.

On the back was the story of Nelson Mandela. It was the story of a 68-year-old prisoner who had been in jail, at that time, for 23 years. A guy who was born into a royal family, who received the best education available and who could easily have chosen to live his life as part of the African elite but instead decided that fighting injustice for all was more important than his personal comfort. I was amazed by his story. I was also intrigued at how his cause had come to be taken up by students at my school.

I gathered the pamphlets up from the ground, straightened the pile and began trying to give them to the few folks I saw out on the plaza enjoying the night air. I thought "if this guy can sit in jail for 20 years and make a difference on the other side of the globe, the least I can do is hand out these flyers." So that's what I did. And I came back the next day to do it again. And another day. And another.

Before I knew it, Nelson Mandela had affected me. The story of his life inspired me to want to make a difference. The news of his death reminded all of us of the difference he made.

Karl Douglass, Columbus native and resident, is a frequent commenter on local, state and federal politics. Follow him on Twitter@KarlDouglass or facebook.com/karldouglass.

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