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North country remembers Nelson Mandela’s legacy

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POTSDAM - In 1994, 19-year-old Lauren Cruikshank cast her vote for Nelson R. Mandela from a South African embassy in Dallas, Texas.

Ms. Cruikshank, who now lives in Canton, had moved to the United States from South Africa the previous year to attend college.

Ms. Cruikshank was one of several north country residents to share her thoughts on the life and legacy of Mr. Mandela, the former South African President and Nobel-prize winning revolutionary who died Thursday at the age of 95.

Mr. Mandela is known for bringing about the end of apartheid in South Africa, a system of racial segregation that lasted for decades, and for leading the country in the years that followed.

“I came from a liberal white family. We were not supportive of apartheid, although we lived in that environment,” she said.

She credits Mr. Mandela for bringing about much-needed change in her home country while avoiding a civil war.

“He pursued a path of reconciliation and forgiveness that brought everyone together,” she said.

Former SUNY Potsdam professor Eileen B. Raymond spent a year teaching special education at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, from 2009-2010.

She fell in love with the country, and has spent three months a year there ever since.

Almost as soon as she arrived Ms. Raymond could see Mr. Mandela’s influence at the university that bears his name.

“What struck me immediately was that these were multiracial groups. Students were not just congregating with others who looked like them,” she said. “This was not the South Africa that we had heard so much about.”

Even though Mr. Mandela spent 27 years in prison for attempting to overthrow the apartheid government, he did not seek retribution after his rise to power. Instead, he worked to create a free, fair government that embraced both white and black South Africans.

“For all he went through, he was a man of great forgiveness. He was bigger than anything that had happened to him,” Mrs. Cruikshank said.

He believed in a nation that belonged to all who lived there, regardless of race or color, Ms. Raymond said.

“He was fiercely, fiercely committed to the freedom of all South Africans,” she said.

Through Mr. Mandela’s efforts, South Africa has become a model for free and fair elections on a continent rife with political turmoil.

“I’m very proud of South Africa,” said Shelly A. McConnell, assistant professor of government at St. Lawrence University.

Ms. McConnell, an American, lived in South Africa for five years as a child. She spent 10 years working for the Carter Center’s Council of Presidents and Prime Ministers of the Americas in Atlanta, an organization made up entirely of the former leaders of nations in the Western Hemisphere.

Last year she interviewed former South African President F.W. de Klerk, who preceded Mr. Mandela and shared the Nobel Peace Prize for bringing about the end of apartheid.

“He stressed how important he felt, and how he continues to feel, how the constitution that was set up in South Africa at that time,” Ms. McConnell said of Mr. de Klerk.

Mr. Mandela’s influence will not soon be forgotten, she said.

“He was a global treasure and I think will go down in history as one of the most important leaders of the 20th century. He was able to move people emotionally as well as in terms of their political positions,” she said.

“I was lucky to have lived at a time when someone of that caliber was on the same planet.”

Mr. Mandela was a complicated figure, the leader of a violent revolutionary group who spent decades branded a terrorist by the United States. This stance was not revoked until 2008, in light of his efforts towards peace and reconciliation that transformed a nation and made him a global symbol for the fight for equality.

Although she has not lived in South Africa for two decades, Ms. Cruikshank often visits her home country. Mr. Mandela’s work will continue to impact his nation and the world, she said.

“There was something about his presence, being alive, that was a beacon for reconciliation and forgiveness that is so, so needed in our world,” she said.

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