My Time with Mandela
Vancouver Campus Provost Cecil Abrahams reflects on his life and career with ‘Madiba’ and beyond
By Kenna Caprio
“He had quite a nice laugh, louder when he was excited,” Cecil Abrahams recalls with a smile of his own.
Of all the memories and moments, big and small, of education and activism spanning decades, Abrahams still remembers the way Nelson Mandela (or Madiba) — the late statesman, anti-apartheid activist and former president of South Africa — sounded when he laughed. With conviction, with gusto, as was Mandela’s way with so much else in his life.
Born in South Africa, a country gripped by apartheid for 46 years, Vancouver Campus Provost Cecil Abrahams grew up in Johannesburg. The son of an East Indian father and a Mauritian mother, whose father was a European Jew — Abrahams was part of the country’s “mixed-race” population. Racial discrimination ran rampant, defining his childhood, adolescence and adult life. His anti-government activism and humanitarian spirit eventually left him a man without a country, his citizenship revoked, when he left South Africa to continue his higher education in Canada.
But this story is one of triumph: Abrahams returned to South Africa to lead a university after the release of Mandela, the man who united a nation. The two men — alongside so many others — worked together to better educational prospects for all South African citizens, and Mandela’s legacy of reconciliation, compassion and wisdom became Abrahams’ legacy, too.
The Red Square
“There was a square not far from my house — they called it Red Square — but it really was a whole lot of red sand. This was a favorite place for children to play and make up their own soccer games. We used to go play there every Saturday and Sunday morning because it was free.
And that was a very popular spot in the afternoons for the political people. Those who were against the government, they’d come there, talk to the people about why they oppose certain laws.
On one of those Sundays, Mandela and members of the African National Congress wanted to hold a rally at the Red Square, but we were playing.
Mandela came up to me, and I didn’t know him at that point, but I discovered soon who he was, and he said to me that we should go and get off the square, they wanted to have their meeting. I said, ‘No, we’re not going to go. We have to finish our game.’ So there was a little to-and-fro between him wanting his political meeting and me wanting to finish my game. Eventually, being bigger than us, they were able to send us off the field.”
[Later, when the two met again at Abrahams’ installation as vice chancellor of University of the Western Cape in Cape Town, South Africa, he reminded Mandela of that fateful first meeting.] I told him the story about the soccer game, and I said, ‘You still owe me an apology.’ He laughed. And he used that story many times in speeches. He’d say, ‘The president of the University of the Western Cape always reminds me that I had pushed him away from the Red Square.’”
Growing up, Abrahams wanted to be the world heavyweight-boxing champion (he couldn’t put on enough weight), Frank Sinatra (he wasn’t the best singer) and a lawyer (he was always defending the less fortunate). He went into education instead.
“My mother insisted that her four sons and two daughters all have a high-school education. So, I am ever grateful to her. My mother used to tell us, ‘you may not have money, but if you have education it will take you far away. Anywhere you want to go,’” says Abrahams. “And I definitely know education has done me a lot of good, because it has taken me far away to many, many places to do many, many things. Mandela believed in that as well.”
Education formed the center of Abrahams’ life, starting at a young age. As he attended school (mixed-race children received free education from the government for the first eight years of school but had to pay for high school), he also learned beyond the classroom, observing and experiencing discrimination firsthand.
Abrahams’ neighborhood consisted of about two-dozen long streets. Low-to-middle class white South Africans, those who worked in mines or had government jobs, lived in one section. The population in the other section was predominantly mixed race and East Indian with some black South Africans.
“You weren’t allowed to cross each other’s streets,” Abrahams says. “If you wanted to go and buy anything on the white side, you must be ready because you’re going to be attacked and beaten up by kids who are white. But when they crossed over to our side, then we would beat them up.”
Abrahams remembers running past the local YMCA, then open only to whites, because children would sit outside and “make nasty comments.” He and his friends and family fled past the spot with fear.
“Apartheid stratified everything — whether it was education, jobs, sports or social issues — everything was divided according to racial lines.” — Cecil Abrahams
“Apartheid stratified everything — whether it was education, jobs, sports or social issues — everything was divided according to racial lines.”
Even the airplanes. South African airlines divided travelers by race. Upon his return to the country as an adult, after apartheid lifted, he beheld the airport with amazement. “When I got back to the same airport from which I had left years ago, and I saw there were no more signs, and I saw the people mingle, I thought, ‘Wow! What a change.’ It was like another world; I couldn’t believe it,” Abrahams says.
By the time Abrahams returned to his country, he had been fighting apartheid for almost as long as it had been the law of the land, though he didn’t realize it was a fight against apartheid, at first.
Around age 10 or 12, Abrahams started speaking out publicly against the unfairness and injustice he witnessed.
“It had nothing to do with my view on race; it had to do with human beings not being treated fairly. I would describe myself as a humanist,” he says. “When I see something is out of line or not fair, I’m going to make my voice come through.”
In local tribunals, he stood up for black South Africans who were being exploited, overcharged or evicted by East Indian tenement owners.
“It wasn’t like what you did was heroic,” he continues. “It’s more my spirit of fairness that guided me and directed me, not Mandela or all the speeches we heard over the bullhorn. I only thought, ‘This is an injustice. I must attack the injustice.’”
Years of defending his neighbors and other locals led Abrahams to temporarily consider a law career after he finished his bachelor’s degree in English, sociology and philosophy at Pius XII Catholic University College in (the British colony) Basutoland, now called Lesotho. “I think my first real awareness of how difficult apartheid could be was when I was ready to go to university,” he says. Though he was accepted to his first choice college in South Africa, he was denied permission to attend by the South African minister of mixed race/colored affairs because of his political activism.
But, “I had my best education there,” says Abrahams of Pius XII. At the small school, founded by Catholic donors and staffed largely by American, European and Canadian faculty, he studied side-by-side with other racial groups for the first time. “We learned from so many international people, and the students were from all groups. There was no discrimination, and you learned for the first time, if you were a South African, how it is to live with other groups.”
Ultimately, continuing his higher education forced his exile. He applied to do his master’s degree in English literature at the University of Cape Town. Accepted to the university, but turned down yet again by the minister, he taught local schoolchildren for nearly a year, trying to decide what to do next.
It was then he thought of studying law, “with a kind of romantic understanding that someday I’d be in a position to be able to defend people like Mandela should they get into trouble [Mandela was jailed in 1964],” he says. “Of course, again, I was turned down and was told no, I wouldn’t be allowed to go to a university that was predominantly white.”
Not long after, he received a letter from the World University Service of Canada to pursue a master’s degree in English at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton. He left for school, leaving his country behind for years.
“Once I was out of the country, obviously, I was going to lose my citizenship.
It looked like apartheid was going to be there for eternity, because most of the people who could’ve led the struggle were either in jail or living outside of the country. At times you would feel very despondent. And you would actually say, ‘I guess I’m never going to see home again.’ You would just have to make the best of it, live outside of the country, and accept that’s going to be our history.
When I first came to Canada, I felt very, very lonely. I really felt lost. I didn’t want to be there — not so much for my education, I appreciated that — but I didn’t want to leave my country. I felt I had been taken away from my roots. It was quite a struggle for a number of years. Every day I was longing to be back home. And listening and hearing about what was going on in South Africa only made me want to go back all the time.
My activities after that to expose apartheid, to expose its cruelty, to appeal to the world to help us bring an end to this system, and to help us establish a democratic society, all led from the learning opportunities I had.
When Nelson Mandela was released from prison [in 1990], and we were then told, ‘you can go back,’ well that was one of the most exciting and wonderful moments. It meant that finally, I’ll be going home. Finally, I will get to see all the family and see friends and just touch the soil and just live within something that I grew up with.”
In exile, Abrahams condemned apartheid rather publicly and quite frequently.
“It was only once I left the country that I got a chance to become involved in organized action against South Africa’s apartheid policy,” he says. “I’d have class, and then I’d work late at night on the political issues.”
He joined the African National Congress, Mandela’s political party — banned in South Africa.
“Once I was outside the country, I had opportunities to explain apartheid to Western audiences, people who couldn’t fathom it. They didn’t understand it. I talked at many meetings, church meetings, educational meetings … I broke it down to the various functions people had in South Africa,” he says. Using education and athletics, the examples he could relate to the most, Abrahams spoke out in the United States, Canada and many other parts of the world.
Passionate about both defending and playing sports, he protested South Africa’s all-white local, national and international teams. Earlier, he had fought against disparities in athletics facilities.
“I was disobedient — I would encourage the young people I was coaching to break the rules by climbing fences and playing on grounds that were reserved for white South Africans,” he says. “I got arrested many times by the police, mostly just overnight. Occasionally they would use a strap to discipline me and members of our team for violating the laws,” he says.
“In sports there were lots of protest opportunities. The facilities were uneven between white and black South Africans. Black people were denied opportunities to participate on national and international teams.”
Later, Abrahams joined the South African Non-Racial Olympic Committee, the group that successfully worked to ban South Africa from participating in the Olympics and in international soccer, cricket and rugby matches until 1992.
“I worked hard on this and helped with this group when I was in exile. We got the country banned and made it impossible for them to participate,” he says.
All the while, he kept studying and collecting degrees.
“The apartheid government decided that education is a dangerous thing,” Abrahams says. “It’s a dangerous tool to put in the hands of oppressed people, because when they become educated and knowledgeable and capable of doing things, they’re a much greater threat.”
After completing his master’s degree, he earned his doctorate at the University of Alberta in English romantic literature.
“Personally, I didn’t think I’d ever be able to enter South Africa [again]. When I wanted to visit family, I’d usually go to Botswana or Swaziland to meet them,” he says. Afterwards, they’d return to South Africa, and Abrahams to Canada. “The people of Canada embraced me, and eventually, I was awarded Canadian citizenship.”
He stayed on in Canada, becoming a professor and then a university administrator, as he and his wife, Rosemary, raised their four children.
“At that time, apart from being active as a professor, I’d also started to run an office for the African National Congress, to seek help from people in Canada and in the U.S. I made lots of forays into the U.S. to give talks at colleges and universities and seek sympathy and support for the struggle to bring an end to apartheid,” Abrahams says.
The 1990s brought rapid change, an end to apartheid and the election of Mandela as president in 1994.
The Vice Chancellor
“After I got back home, Mandela insisted on coming to my installation [as vice chancellor of University of the Western Cape (UWC)]. In South Africa, when you’re installed as president, it’s quite a big thing, because the leaders of universities there are treated like national figures.
And this university was well-known politically, so it brought along a lot of attention. Mandela’s office called my office and informed me that he would like to come to my inauguration.
When he arrived on campus, I was, first of all, flattered, but I was also a little upset. I said: ‘Mr. President, I’m pleased to have you here. But my real worry is that it is my special day, and everybody will be praising me, but when you come they’ll forget about me, and they’ll all be going after you.’ He laughed. He said, ‘Okay, I won’t stay long. I’ll just make my speech and run away, and then you’ll have them to yourself.’ We had a big laugh.
Then he said, ‘Shake my hand.’ I did, and he said further, ‘I’m not going to wash my hand for the whole week; I shook the hand of a great man.’”
In 1995, Abrahams flew home to South Africa. With Mandela freed from prison and newly elected as president, change felt palpable.
“I saw a kind of enthusiasm, a joy, a happiness on the streets of Johannesburg that I had not seen before. We found our freedom. I could go and walk where I want to,” he recalls. “Everybody talked about the ‘new’ South Africa. South Africans really believed it was a new day, a new country, a new everything. I’d never seen so much energy and enthusiasm for change. I was excited about that.”
But at the fractured University of the Western Cape, which was facing major financial woes, much work remained for Abrahams as the new vice chancellor.
“During the time I was in exile, this university had become more politically active, and students and staff were engaged in the struggle to free South Africa of apartheid,” Abrahams says. “With the arrival of democracy, many staff had left to serve in the new government.”
He continues: “The 16,000 students were poorly prepared for higher education studies. Furthermore, many of them originated from the poorest families in the country and had a difficult time paying for their tuition, lodgings and books. The failure rate was high. I began the process of transformation by changing the university’s motto to ‘A Place of Quality, A Place to Grow.’”
The challenge was daunting. “My youngest son, he was about 9, teased me. He said, ‘Dad, you’re really smart. You’re so smart that you chose a university that had a deficit of $26 million rand [the South African currency],’” he says.
But Abrahams felt determined: to provide a quality education for all races at his university, to help student protesters move on from the past and forget retribution for apartheid, to convince students to pay their tuition fees and to fix the school’s finances. A tall order.
Undeterred, he forged ahead, instituting changes.
“As a natural peacemaker and negotiator I managed to make the students see how important their education was in building the ‘new’ South Africa. Through meetings with the leaders of the students, we were able to assist students,” says Abrahams.
“We managed to offer tuition plans and greater financial help,” he says. “I spoke with government ministers about the establishment of a student-loan plan, and today the government has an annual plan of close to $12 billion South African rand. Even this amount is still not enough.”
Abrahams believed in the spirit of reconciliation set forth on the national stage by Mandela — particularly evident in the president’s handling of the dispute between black and white South Africans over the springbok symbol, once a representation of oppression, on rugby player uniforms — and applied it to his work.
“By working with Mandela, I concentrated on ways to reconcile, rather than openly confront our oppressors.” —Cecil Abrahams
“In exile, we thought much more of how to get rid of our oppressors and their oppression rather than how to include them in our vision of a future South Africa,” says Abrahams. “By working with Mandela, I concentrated on ways to reconcile, rather than openly confront our oppressors. The rugby story [players were not forced to remove the springbok from the uniforms] exhibited Mandela’s courage and encouraged me to follow my principles and instincts in whatever I did.”
The Dinner Party
“Mandela asked me to bring 24 people from the university to come and have dinner with him at the president’s house. He wanted to speak with us about his presidency. I don’t think many presidents anywhere in the world would do that kind of thing.
After dinner he said to us, ‘I want you to be candid, to be honest, to tell me exactly how you think I’ve done as a president.’ And everybody, of course, was nervous to speak.
I led off by saying, ‘Mr. President, I want us to talk about education and my worries about whether in the five years we have seen the kind of movement forward that you had promised.’ I pointed out some of the difficulties we were having in higher education, especially around financing.
Tuition wasn’t a great deal in South Africa, but it was significant enough if you came from a poor family — and most of the students we had were poor. The government’s view was, while they respected the idea of improving education, they just didn’t have the money to support those students who were at university.
I raised all of these issues with the president; and in fact, while we were sitting there talking, he said to me, ‘Let’s call the minister of education.’ The minister was very, very uncomfortable, and the president directed him to meet with me early in the next week so that we could talk about what I had said.
President Mandela, after we’d all put forward our ideas, said he wished he had been younger. He said the expectations of the South African people were too high for somebody his age. Which was very interesting. President Mandela felt that he could’ve changed more things if he could’ve got to all the places where people were struggling. And then, by his mere presence, things would have changed.”
When Mandela took office, he told South Africans that he would only serve as president for five years, in an effort to ensure a democratic transition of power.
Those five years were nearly up in 1999, at the dinner party. Even with just months left as president, he wanted to do more and be better. Over sixteen years later, Abrahams remains floored by the dinner invitation.
“This unheard of, honest gesture by a larger-than-life leader, was astounding,” he says. “I’m truly fortunate to have had the opportunity to know and to work with President Mandela as South Africa moved from an oppressive state to a democratic one. I lived for his vision while he was in jail, and it became so much better when I could stand by his side and share it with him.”
When Abrahams left the University of the Western Cape in 2001, Mandela’s welcoming embrace and thoughtful countenance stayed with him.
Mandela treated all equally, and so too has Abrahams.
“All my life, I have struggled to ensure that those who have little and those who have less than me, economically, are given opportunities to better themselves.” —Cecil Abrahams
After almost six years as vice chancellor at University of the Western Cape, Abrahams and his family moved to the United States.
“I found the vice chancellor’s job to be a great challenge, and I set out to do my best. I also realized that the job was bigger than me, and it required others to take it further. I had become a stranger to my family and friends because of the overwhelming involvement of my work on campus, nationally and internationally,” he says. “Looking back to 1995–2001, I can say with some pride and satisfaction that I left the university in better shape than when I started. My recent visit there satisfied me that the quiet and studious campus had something to do with my tenure.”
In recognition of his achievements in higher education in South Africa and internationally, he was invited to be the distinguished professor of higher education, and later to hold an endowed chair, at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Syracuse University in New York invited him to become a distinguished university professor in higher education and English literature. The State University of New York system and the Universite de la Reunion in France awarded him honorary doctorate degrees. In 2009, he accepted the position of campus provost at Fairleigh Dickinson University’s Vancouver Campus in British Columbia, Canada.
“President Mandela said: ‘We have no chance of becoming successful as a country in this modern, 21st-century world, if we do not get our people educated.’
And he was not thinking only of postsecondary students. In fact he was thinking of kindergarten to sixth-and seventh-grade students. For him education began at this level and it was important that we got it right.
Mandela was acutely aware that there were lots of children who were educated in the rural areas and the urban black townships without proper schools. They would sit under trees and in badly deteriorated buildings trying to learn. It was not very easy to do that.
He knew that for that education to happen, it was not something that only happened at universities and in technology places. It had to happen from the bottom up. He put a lot of effort into the creation of new schools.
President Mandela not only used the money and the revenue collected for the country, but also his fame. There were lots of well-to-do people and governments that flocked to South Africa to meet President Mandela. They always offered — ‘We’d like to make a gift to your country and what would you like?’ He would say, ‘Come. I want to go show you something.’ And then he’d get his driver, and they’d go out to a barren field and he would say: ‘Do you see there? I’d like to have a school there. That’s what I want you to donate to my country.’
Many of them actually gave the money to build schools. There’s a legacy of Mandela schools all over the country.
I think the most heartening thing for him was to see how the children were eager to come to school. On an annual basis, these schools have increased their enrollment, every year more and more children are going to school.
Eventually these children will have the kind of education to help move South Africa into a modern, industrialized country.”
Today, leaders and citizens in South Africa continue to work toward Mandela’s goal of racial unity. “What he did was to prepare the ground for South Africans to achieve this cherished goal. I have just returned from a month-long visit to South Africa, and it is with some real worries [tensions remain high, and rioting continues at some institutions of higher education] that I look upon what Mandela had preached and in some cases succeeded to do, and how it will take a very long time still for true racial unity to occur.”
And so the solution, in part, is to prioritize education efforts, not just in South Africa, but also around the world.
“Education is the center point of my being. Not money, but knowledge.” — Cecil Abrahams
“Education is the center point of my being. Not money, but knowledge,” Abrahams says. “I always tell students, ‘Your education is valuable not only for its own sake, but also in how you use it for others and in the world.’”
Now as campus provost, Abrahams relishes the small, intimate atmosphere of FDU’s Vancouver Campus, a hub of higher learning for international students, who now number more than 700. It reminds him of his own undergraduate days at Pius XII Catholic University College.
“Learning at a smaller place and having this kind of direct, personal attention, I’ve found it to be really wonderful,” he says. “I know practically everyone by name. The professors know and support the students. There’s a closeness and connection with students and their cultures and countries.”
There’s a connection to both his past and his hopes for the future at the Vancouver Campus, too. “FDU’s mission and established practices are very much in line with my own philosophy of educating youth,” he says. “Aspects of globalization, diversity, equality and a better and fairer world restate much of my own beliefs. I am a natural part of FDU and very much at home with its philosophy. I have no difficulty in explaining myself to the students and to encourage them to do their best to make our world better.”
At orientation, Abrahams encourages students to take advantage of not only their studies in a multicultural atmosphere, but also the connections and friendships they build with classmates.
“One of the things I tell our students at every orientation is, ‘You are very lucky to come to a good place like FDU, because one of the things you can count on with the students from 70 countries here, is you have the possibility of going into 70 countries where, at least for the first night you’re not going to pay for your lodging. Because you’re going to go see another student and they’ll have a couch or bed where you can stay. Plus you will have a guide who will show you the country,’” he says. “‘You can go all over the place and experience what it is to be a global citizen.’”
The idea of being a global citizen, “engaging with the world to contribute to its betterment,” so ingrained in the fabric of Fairleigh Dickinson University, is deeply rooted in Abrahams’ philosophy — and Mandela’s, too.
“Mandela believed very much that we were all human beings trying to make something out of ourselves and the countries we are living in.” — Cecil Abrahams
“Mandela did not come out of jail to be vindictive. He did not come out of jail to take revenge,” says Abrahams. “Mandela always believed that people were people. Color was not important. That what you should look for in a human being is what they can bring, what strength they bring — some can bring it through having studied or becoming trained in something, while others will bring just themselves, their kindness and goodness. Mandela believed very much that we were all human beings trying to make something out of ourselves and the countries we are living in.”
For years Abrahams has done the same: making something of himself through the education of others. Changing the world, one student, one school, one nation at a time.
Ed. note: A version of this article first appeared in the Winter/Spring 2016 edition of FDU Magazine.