UMass/South African Story

Let me tell you something of the University's long-standing relationship with South Africa and the many who struggled for so long to bring about the demise of apartheid.

The University of Massachusetts has had an enduring rich relationship with South Africa since the 1970s when it became one of the first universities to divest of holdings in apartheid South Africa, an action that swelled a movement around the globe and contributed to the demise of apartheid.

The University has awarded honorary degrees to many of those engaged intimately in the struggle for freedom. In 1993, the UMass Boston campus awarded honorary degrees to key negotiators Roelf Meyer and Cyril Ramaphosa in acknowledgement of their efforts to accomplish a successful outcome between clashing political parties during the transition negotiations. 

Meyer was South Africa's Minister of Constitutional Affairs and Communications and the leader of the government's negotiating team working to bring about democracy and an end to South Africa's white minority rule.

Secretary General of the African National Congress (ANC), Ramaphosa worked with Meyer to ensure that the negotiations moved forward even after formal talks had broken down.

UMass Boston’s 1993 commencement program notes the reasons for their honorary degrees. In honoring Meyer, the university recognized "his humanitarian commitment to eliminating the inequities of South African society and to creating a new democratic foundation for a multiracial government in that country.” Recognizing Ramaphosa, UMass Boston paid "tribute to a man whose courageous and tireless pursuit of democratic ideals serves as a model for those who seek to carry on the struggle to achieve a free and equitable society."

Together they delivered the commencement address.

In 2000, UMass Amherst awarded the degree of Doctor of Humane Letters to Ahmed Kathrada, one of the Rivonia Trialists sentenced in 1964 to life in prison (narrowly escaping the death sentence) along with Nelson Mandela and the seven others.  He served nearly 26 years before being released a few months prior to the release of Mr. Mandela.

In 2006, and with the careful facilitation overseen by Ahmed Kathrada, a delegation of three trustees and University leadership traveled to South Africa to award honorary degrees to Nelson Mandela and his spouse, Graca Machel, at the Nelson Mandela Foundation in Johannesburg.

In 2011, UMass Lowell awarded an honorary degree to Barbara Hogan, the only Afrikaner woman sentenced to prison for her efforts to overthrow the apartheid government.  She served nearly ten years and was released shortly before the release of Mr. Mandela.

There were also two earned degrees awarded to Maki Mandela, Mr. Mandela’s daughter, who earned an MA in Sociology in 1989 and a Ph.D. in Anthropology in 1993 from UMass Amherst.

In addition, over the years, the University has had academic agreements with several South African universities, such as the University of Cape Town, the University of the Western Cape, the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal, the University of Witwatersrand, the University of Pretoria, MEDUNSA (the Medical University of South Africa) and Stellenbosch University.

The UMass Medical School pioneered the drug Nevirapine, which is still among the most effective treatments for AIDS as part of a multi-drug regimen. It is also used worldwide as a means of preventing maternal-fetal transmission. UMMS professors and staff took the drug to South Africa, distributed it and taught local health professionals to test for and train others in the prevention and treatment of HIV.

The Nelson Mandela Foundation is webhost to "The Heart of Hope – South Africa’s Transition from Apartheid to Democracy," which is an extensive collection of interviews conducted by UMass Boston between 1985 and 2005 with many of the key personalities and those who influenced South Africa's political history. The collection presents a broad range of perspectives on events in South Africa during and after the Apartheid period.

One of the now retired South African Constitutional Court justices, Albie Sachs, is a frequent visitor to the University, lecturing in constitutional law at the Law School in 2010 and coming to offer assistance at the Boston and Dartmouth campuses (those primarily affected) following the Marathon bombing in 2013.  Having been the victim himself of a car bomb in 1989 in Mozambique where he was in exile (the South African secret service had targeted him for elimination), his connection to our students, faculty and staff was unforgettably moving.

Each year the University has visitors from South Africa who were active in the struggle for freedom.  They visit our campuses and always describe it as a privilege to talk with our students, faculty and staff.

Some of our students have even had internships at the Amy Biehl Foundation Trust in Cape Town, where they have had the opportunity to work in the townships along with two of the young men sentenced to prison and later granted amnesty (with the testimony of her parents for the murder of  their daughter, Amy Biehl.)  They, too, have been on our campuses.  In fact, Linda Biehl was the first Greeley Scholar (Peace and Reconciliation) on the UMass Lowell campus.

Of the many contributions that the University of Massachusetts has made in furthering the cause of peace and free societies, one stands out:  the University of Massachusetts is the ONLY university in the world to co-convene a conference with Mr. Mandela (then President Mandela), when, in 1997,  the University and President Mandela brought together the chief negotiators from Northern Ireland to Arnistan, South Africa for four days to meet with all the chief negotiators from the parties in South Africa that had achieved their breakthrough settlement in 1994.   Mr. Mandela and others to whom UMass has awarded honorary degrees, were participants at this conference, which the Northern Irish themselves described later as a seminal turning point leading to the Good Friday Agreements in 1998.

This, clearly, was the University's greatest contribution in our relationship with South Africa.  Some of the participants from Arnistan were present subsequently as conference co-conveners when, in 2000 with the help of Martti Ahtisaari, Nobel Laureate and former President of Finland, the University brought a group of Shi'is and Suunis from Iraq to Helsinki with the hope of achieving a workable settlement.

So, as you see, the University of Massachusetts, indeed, has a long, substantive and enduring relationship with South Africa.

Marcellette G. Williams, Ph.D.
Senior Vice President