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Interns Insights: Mandela and Affirmative Action

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Interns Insights: Mandela and Affirmative Action
By Alyssa Invernizzi
Posted: 2023-07-17T18:10:00Z

For the UN Nelson Mandela Day, our summer intern, Alyssa Invernizzi reflects on the ties between Affirmative Action and Nelson Mandela's legacy of human right. 

To commemorate the life and accomplishments of Nelson Mandela, July 18 is declared by the United Nations as Nelson Mandela International Day. Nelson Mandela was a former president of South Africa who negotiated the end of apartheid in his country and advocated for peace and human rights across the globe. This celebration was launched in 2009 by the U.N. General Assembly in recognition of Nelson Mandela's birthday. Almost every day this summer, I get to drive past embassy row on my way to class at American University. I distinctly remember seeing his statue at the Embassy of South Africa in Washington, D.C. As we approach the day of his remembrance, I began to wonder how he would think his advocacy ties into the recent decisions made by the Supreme Court of the United States. The hearings' outcome saddens most U.S. citizens as they mostly go against Mandela's ideals of opportunities for everyone.


Especially on June 29 of this year, the Supreme Court ruled that United States colleges can no longer utilize affirmative action, a program used to identify individuals belonging to a specific underrepresented group during but not limited to the college admissions process. This could include gender, race, ethnicity, disabilities, etc., and allowed institutions to promote diversity and increase opportunities for these groups. Before Mandela was President, he was known to be a political prisoner due to his involvement in the African National Congress and anti-colonial groups in the 1940s. When he became deputy president of the ANC in 1952, he advocated for nonviolent civil disobedience and resistance to the segregated laws upheld in South Africa. However, when a peaceful protest to object to these laws in Sharpeville in 1960 escalated quickly into a violent fight, Mandela was arrested for these charges.


The significance of nonviolent civil disobedience was prominent during the civil rights era and during the 2020 Black Lives Matter movement to ensure that police brutality would not continue. However, because his actions became violent, Mandela was convicted and sentenced to 27 years and spent 18 of those years in Robben Island Prison. This facility was known to enforce harsh labor conditions, limited visitation rights, and overall, remained a broken system. While serving his sentence, F.W. de Klerk became the next president of South Africa and later ordered the ban against ANC to be lifted (along with releasing Nelson Mandela from prison). His actions inspired Mandela to negotiate with the government to end apartheid and create a diverse government by being elected the next president of South Africa. His impact on social justice is revolutionary, and if Mandela were still here today, he would be saddened to hear the ruling of the affirmative action expulsion.

In 1991, in a speech at a South African Conference on Affirmative Action, Nelson Mandela hailed affirmative action as “a beacon of positive expectation, a promise of better things to come.” Later as the first black president of South Africa, Mandela wanted to ensure that government institutions in his country were not segregated. In 1999, his Cabinet announced a series of affirmative-action policies in jobs, sports, and land, mineral, and water resources stating "Affirmative action is corrective action...We shall not be discouraged by the sirens of self-interest.” If Mandela were here to witness the recent SCOTUS ruling, I do not doubt that he would express his disappointment towards it due to his recognition of affirmative action in the past.


On July 18, I would like to see women judges embracing the importance of inclusive justice in our government, schools, and society. Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson wrote to the New York Times that "To impose this result in that clause's name [Equal Protection Clause] when it requires no such thing, and to thereby obstruct our collective progress toward the full realization of the clause's promise, is truly a tragedy for us all." She outlines the importance of recognizing people of color when a simple request is taken away like this. Internationally as well, women in apex courts are noticing these infringements of rights daily in their position. The right to equality is a fundamental part of societal freedom in all areas. As Nelson Mandela said himself (United Nations Foundation exhibit), "To deny people their human rights is to challenge their very humanity." It is vital now that we decipher what our next steps will be after this unfortunate decision. Thus, leaders like Nelson Mandela and their ideals are the ones we want to value moving forward as the fight for human rights for all continues.