A brief meeting with Nelson Mandela still resonates with IU scholar from South Africa

Patrick O'Meara, right, with Nelson Mandela

Patrick O’Meara, right, with Nelson Mandela

This week, while many people around the world turned their thoughts to Nelson Mandela, the famed civil rights leader and former president of South Africa, I called someone at IU with a unique perspective: Patrick O’Meara.

A native of South Africa who came to IU in the 1960s, O’Meara earned his doctorate at IU and has been a political science professor as well as a dean and vice president. He also is a former director of IU’s renowned African Studies Program in the College of Arts and Sciences, which marked its 50th anniversary in 2011.

Today, he chairs the Center for International Education and Development Assistance, which he helped establish at IU, and serves as a special adviser to the president.

O’Meara told me about his one and only meeting with Mandela, about three months after the then-deputy president of the African National Congress had been released from prison in February 1990. They met each other at lunch at a hotel in Kimberley, South Africa, following a rally attended by 25,000 followers.

“We chatted about various things, including Gwendolen Carter,” a former IU faculty member who authored the definitive history of the fight against apartheid, O’Meara said. “She was close to the Mandela family and actually I think helped to support the schooling of two of his daughters.”

Carter, who died a year later in 1991, co-authored several volumes of “From Protest to Challenge: A Documentary History of African Politics in South Africa,” which drew upon ANC documents that she smuggled out of the country. She taught at IU from 1974 to 1984 and today remains known for helping to found African studies in the United States.

She and O’Meara also collaborated on several books published by IU Press about South Africa. O’Meara’s book with Phyllis M. Martin, “Africa,” remains an important introductory text for African studies courses.

Much of the discussion between the two men centered on Mandela’s trip to the U.S. planned for June 1990 and on O’Meara’s impressions of South Africa gathered from several weeks touring the country.

“We talked about academics, and I was pleased to see him, and he was quite humorous on various things,” O’Meara, then director of IU’s African Studies Program, said of his brief meeting with Mandela.

“It was very moving to meet him as a person,” O’Meara told the Herald-Times in 1990. “He struck me as a lively, interesting, strong personality. And it dawned on me the burdens on his shoulders.”

Since that May afternoon, O’Meara has attended other events with Mandela, particularly at the parliament, but they haven’t spoken to each other again. It would be another three years before Mandela would be elected his nation’s first black president.

IU’s South African activities have been integral to its broader African Studies Program, which gained recognition as a Title VI National Resource Center in 1965, a designation it continues to maintain today. The international journal Africa Today is edited by members of the department and published by IU Press.

The university has had several major commitments with South African institutions over the years. When many black South Africans were having difficulty getting accepted at leading universities, IU partnered with Khanya College, an NGO based in Johannesburg.

“For several years, Khanya was an important organization; it was part of trust, and it meant ‘education for liberation,'” O’Meara said. “The purpose was to help young black students who were very talented, but who had inferior sorts of high school education and were not able to get into the major universities.”

Under the program, students spent a year at various sites around South Africa taking six core educational courses designed at IU. IU faculty members, including those who traveled there to teach the courses, conducted all grading and reviews. The program largely took place during the 1990s.

“Once the transition took place, the universities were opened,” he said. “But the value of this was that the students, on completion of our courses, received an IU transcript and with that transcript were able to get admission to these major universities.”

Many alumni of the program today have been successful in life, including those who have become university professors, artists and government officials.

Today, IU professors continue to study South Africa’s history and culture, and engagement remains between Bloomington and South Africa. And hopefully in the near future, there will be even more.

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