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“The Capacity to Make History”

Remarks at the University of Johannesburg at Soweto

As delivered

Minister Nzimande, Vice Chancellor Rensburg, students, faculty, community leaders, distinguished guests. I thank you for the extraordinarily warm welcome we have received. I am deeply honored to be with you today at the University of Johannesburg, on this young and vibrant campus in the heart of South Africa.

Soweto is hallowed ground — at the center of the struggle for freedom that cost so many lives. And I can say without hesitation, judging from the hope and energy and blazing innovative spirit I have seen even in the few hours since I arrived, that everything I had heard about this university is true — that if you want to understand what “living democracy” means to the new South Africa, look no further than this remarkable institution. “Soweto rising,” as you say.

This is my first trip to Africa, and I hope the first of many, for me and for my successors.

It is a long journey here, a journey that gives me new perspective on a nation I care deeply about — a nation colonized by the Dutch and the British, a nation once mired in injustice, a nation whose independence and freedom have inspired the world; a nation of complex racial and ethnic heritage, whose aspirations and transcendent achievements defy the legacies of oppression that still challenge its progress; it’s a nation whose people could once only imagine the day that their president might have an indigenous African heritage, and for whom that day came.

I refer, of course, to both our nations. As Robert Kennedy reminded us, when he said something like this at Cape Town in 1966, our nations have traveled two separate roads, with very different histories of transformation. But we also recognize that in those stories lies a common struggle for liberation, for universal rights before the law, and for human dignity against the evils of slavery and apartheid. And so if the journey from the United States to South Africa is a long one in miles, it is for countless Americans a very short one in emotional resonance. I am one of those Americans.

I have spent most of my life studying the history of the American South, and the long, slow struggle of American society toward greater freedom. African history, as part of that story, is central to my life as a scholar and to my understanding of who I am — born and raised in the segregated state of Virginia, where Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal,” yet himself at the same time owned slaves; where, during my childhood, the United States senator from my home county urged that Virginia close its public schools rather than integrate them. Harvard, too, has shared in that past — with lives lost among students and faculty in our Civil War. And also Harvard has shared through its own struggle, over four centuries, to open the University to all students of merit, no matter what their backgrounds. For us, like you, widening access to education is a fundamental commitment. And so it is deeply meaningful for me today, personally and as the president of Harvard, to affirm the bonds that for more than half a century have linked Harvard to South Africa, and this continent — and to pledge to you our long-term commitment to extend those bonds. To learn from you as we hope you learn from us, and together create a more collaborative future.

That is why I want to speak today about education. About the role of education as a force for liberation in both of our societies. Think of the countless examples. I think of the prisoners on Robben Island, routinely denied postgraduate study, until they were permitted, at last to have books and journals even though those too were often prohibited. And yet they struggled, they learned, they studied. And they used that education as a foundation for the freedom movement they built when they were released.

Think of American freedmen who, after centuries of being denied literacy in slavery, made schooling a centerpiece in the exercise of their hard-won freedom. As one former slave put it in the 1860s, “What would the best soil produce without cultivation? We want to get wisdom. That is all we need. Let us get that and we are made for time and eternity.” Think of the thousands of schoolchildren who marched to Cape Town’s City Hall this September, politely demanding libraries, classrooms, and, as one ninth-grader said, “more information and knowledge.” Think of W.E.B. Du Bois, Harvard’s first black Ph.D., who proclaimed, “Of all the civil rights that the world has struggled for, for five thousand years, the right to learn is undoubtedly the most fundamental.” Du Bois had to struggle for his own education and in 1891 finally persuaded a scholarship committee that there was a black person worthy of sending to graduate school. “I find men willing to help me use my hands …” he wrote, “but I never found a man willing to help me get a Harvard Ph.D.” Finally, that changed.

But change is neither immediate nor total. For each moment of exhilarating transformation there are a thousand daily realities, traveling a slower road, far behind our ideals. There is a reason that we still call our “Reconstruction” after the American Civil War an “unfinished revolution.” It took the United States 100 years to ensure black Americans the right to vote, and to begin to create integrated schools. And we still have vast inequities. In South Africa, I know that 1994 can seem like a very long time ago.

“Like life,” as Martin Luther King put it, “… racial understanding” and I would add, all understanding, “is not something that we find but something that we must create … in persistent trying, perpetual experimentation, persevering togetherness.”

This is why the things you are doing here on this Soweto campus — academic and vocational — are so vital. Because “persistent trying” and “perpetual experimentation” are the things universities do so very well. Every year I tell Harvard’s incoming freshmen that they are entering a research university, and they should know what that is — a peculiar, hybrid sort of place, dedicated to free thought and the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, and at the same time devoted to the public good, and that while both of these aims draw upon a vast store of knowledge, they also require unconventional and speculative thought, tested and prodded through disagreement, discussion, and debate.

This year Cambridge University in England is celebrating its 800th birthday. Just how a great university remains a source of discovery and creativity for nearly a millennium “changing all the time,” as one observer noted, “yet maintaining something … at its heart,” is a rather humbling mystery. But Cambridge, he added, is also a place that reflects the “contradictions and never-resolved tensions” out of which it has emerged over those eight centuries. And this, it seems to me, captures the strength of all great universities, which hold in creative tension the arguments and impossible contradictions of their societies. That strength is evident in this university, which, by melding four separate diverse universities into one, inhabits a distinctive democratic “South Africanness.” You have a mixed faculty of varied races. That took more than three centuries. You have a mixed student body with a balance of women and men. That took Harvard almost 340 years. And you have already created an outstanding faculty in a number of areas of research and public service.

Universities help create new ideas and better societies because we are free, because we challenge assumptions and challenge ourselves. Many of us here today have had to raze barriers and break new ground to create an open society and an open system of education. And at this crucial moment in our histories, we must ask what we can do now, as two institutions with unique and powerful identities and histories, to further the pursuit of knowledge, and fulfill the promise of a better society — to “rethink education, reinvent yourself,” as it says across UJ’s Web pages.

Let me give you one current answer. In rural areas near Soweto, school principals are running classrooms in fields and abandoned school buses and shipping containers, sometimes risking their lives to serve students who want to become doctors and civil engineers. These heroic men and women, and many like them, are the reason the UJ Faculty of Education and Harvard’s Graduate School of Education are working on an initiative for training school principals that could help transform lives and South African education. Drawing on UJ’s pioneering efforts in educational reform and the Harvard Education School’s 30 years of leadership training experience, our universities hope to create an Educational Leadership Institute that will make this campus a center of educational innovation for Africa, and indeed for the entire world.

This is the kind of collaboration I mean.

In these kinds of partnerships, new and established, two things connect Harvard to South Africa. One is the power of ideas.

Harvard’s interest in Africa is long and deep – from the archaeology and anthropology of more than a century ago, to early research in nutrition, to mapping the Milky Way from our observatory in Bloemfontein in the 1950s. Soon after, Harvard Business School formed connections with the University of the Witwatersrand and helped it create its own business school.

In South Africa and across Africa, countless programs emphasize collaboration and the development of African talent and expertise. Our Medical School is engaged in HIV/AIDS programs in KwaZulu-Natal; and our School of Public Health maintains dozens of partnerships, in 20 countries across the continent, ranging from tuberculosis research and women’s health projects in Botswana, Tanzania, and elsewhere, to training programs for Senegalese researchers fighting malaria; from AIDS peer education programs in South Africa, to the far-reaching Botswana-Harvard AIDS Institute, which I had the privilege of visiting yesterday. The Business School and Kennedy School of Government train African leaders and policymakers, and the Kennedy School is working with South African and other economists on the South African Growth Initiative. And at Harvard, our Committee on African Studies, Du Bois Institute, and Department of African and African American Studies have become premier centers for teaching and research. Our students have the opportunity to study 27 African languages. And this is only a sampling.

In our longstanding commitment to public service and research, Harvard shares your hope for a healthy, peaceful, and prosperous continent.

Another thing that connects us, and a very moving one, is the power of our students to effect change. When Robert Kennedy spoke to students at the University of Cape Town as attorney general in the summer of 1966, he said that from a thousand small acts would come “a tiny ripple of hope.” And he added, “it is young people who must take the lead.” I do not need to tell you that they did — nowhere more stunningly than here in Soweto in the uprising of 1976 that created a turning point for change.

As we engaged in the fight for Civil Rights in the United States, the African and especially South African struggle for freedom inspired students on both continents. A Harvard student led the Boston committee against apartheid, and for college students across America divestiture from investments in South Africa became the civil rights issue of the 1970s and 1980s.

“Students … are generators of ideas,” says a current Harvard senior from Ghana — “because we are not corrupted by the limitations of the real world, [because] we can imagine solutions.” We know he is right. After three years of floating ideas and tracking down experts, many of them here in Africa, this student and his freshman roommate from Indianapolis helped bring clean water to a Ghanaian village — an experience that transformed their own lives as much as the villagers’. Just as UJ collaborates with communities and reaches out to schoolchildren at the Soweto Festival every fall about health issues and educational opportunity, Harvard students volunteer as AIDS researchers, orphanage workers, and since 1966 as teachers in African schools; and for 30 years the Harvard South African Fellowship Program has placed outstanding South African students in every School at Harvard. They often return to Africa to become leaders in their fields.

While there is still far to go, there has also been great progress — especially since that day in Cape Town, when Kennedy went on to call upon “common qualities of conscience and indignation” to ensure equal opportunity for the “disinherited,” not only in South Africa but in places like Watts in Los Angeles and the South Side of Chicago. He could not have known that at that moment as he was speaking about Chicago’s South Side, on Chicago’s South Side lived a 2-year-old girl who would soon become an outstanding student at Princeton and Harvard, a lawyer, and eventually the first lady of the United States.

Universities, our nations, our globe, face great challenges, as formidable as any in human history — crises in environment and public health, education and our economies, basic needs and human rights.

In the midst of these challenges, as your great constitutional court justice Albie Sachs has put it, we must remember the moments when we “link up the ordinary details of life with the great events of our history” — the moments when we feel the power of change. We felt it at Harvard on that brilliant September day in 1998, when Nelson Mandela came to Harvard to accept an honorary degree. Twenty-five thousand people packed into the campus space between our library and Memorial Church, with New England church bells pealing and African drums beating. I cannot tell you how many who witnessed it have told me it was the single most moving moment they have experienced at Harvard.

We felt it again last fall in the United States, as South Africa did in 1994, when at some point in last November’s American presidential election, no matter what our party or political persuasion, all Americans realized the world of our past had irrevocably changed.

This generation must carry such moments into the future. We must believe, as Mandela said, in our “capacity to make history.” We in the United States and you in South Africa have been granted a very special moment in the history of the world and in its progress towards freedom. It is our challenge to make the most of it.

Some of you may be too young to remember, but 16 years ago, when Muhammad Ali first visited South Africa, on the heels of the assassination of liberation leader Chris Hani — an event that would galvanize the negotiators to end apartheid — Ali was mobbed by thousands of young people here in the streets of Soweto, an inspiring figure not just in professional boxing, but in the fight for freedom. Perhaps some of you were there. “Study,” he told them, “become educated,” and on that visit he finally embraced for the first time his own hero, Nelson Mandela. The next year, when Mandela became president, he talked about the power of sports to move people, and in 1995, wearing jersey number six, he embraced Francois Pienaar, the 6-foot-4 captain of the Springboks, who had just won the rugby world cup championship for South Africa.

It is alongside these defining moments that we might think about the 2010 World Cup — as a moment for the world to embrace South Africa, and for South Africa to embrace the world. Universities and our students have a key role in that embrace, on the long road of triumphs in the struggle for human rights — as symbols of understanding forged in sacrifice, as markers of expanding opportunity and international fellowship, as embodiments of education as a vehicle for freedom. It is a privilege for Harvard to walk that road with South Africa.

Thank you.

– Drew Gilpin Faust