Nelson Mandela, Barack Obama, and the Transformation of Race Relations in South Africa and the United States

Edward Ramsamy (Africana Studies)

Two phenomena that were once viewed as impossible are now history. Nelson Mandela, having served 27 years in prison for protesting apartheid, steered South Africa through a relatively peaceful transition and became that country’s first democratically elected president in 1994. In November 2008, the United States experienced its own “Mandela moment” when Barack Obama was elected as the nation’s first black president. Both South Africa and the United States share a common history of legally mandated segregation. Racial exclusion and oppression were central to the national projects of both societies, as well as the creation of white identity therein. For example, given the entrenched nature of racial discrimination and segregation in South Africa, many believed that apartheid could only come to a violent end. And in the United States, the persistence of the color line led most to assume that a person of African ancestry could not assume the presidency during their lifetimes. Yet, despite these assumptions, the opposite has become a reality in both societies. The aim of the seminar is:  to interrogate the socio-cultural, political, and economic factors that led the election of Nelson Mandela and Barack Obama, respectively; to examine the success and challenges faced by both leaders in overcoming the legacy of the color line in their respective societies; and to assess whether terms such as “post-apartheid” and “post-racial” are appropriate in describing present race relations in these two societies.

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Open to First-Year EOF Students