Remembering Nelson Mandela
7:54 am
Wed December 11, 2013

WestSouthwest: Don Cooney on apartheid and meeting Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela's memorial service Tuesday in Soweto, South Africa
Nelson Mandela's memorial service Tuesday in Soweto, South Africa
Credit The Associated Press

The world is remembering Nelson Mandela for his work to end apartheid in his native South Africa, and to unify the country after he became president in 1994. 

Western Michigan University Social Work Professor Don Cooney was among those who called for the university to divest in South Africa during the 1980's. He told WMUK's Gordon Evans that he and others decided they would have to protest and get arrested when the Board of Trustees did not take up the issue. Cooney, who is also a Kalamazoo City Commissioner, says eventually the university decided to pull its investments from South Africa.

(NRP stories on life and death of Nelson Mandela)

Cooney also led the effort to award an honorary degree to Mandela in 1988 while he was still in a South African prison. He says it was a way of showing that Western stood with Mandela against apartheid. 

Shortly after Mandela was released from prison in 1990, Cooney had a chance to meet him in New York City. He says there were about 60 people from around the country who had been active in trying to put pressure on the South African government. Cooney says "It was one of the great experiences in my life."

Cooney also taught a student from South Africa, Leila Patel who went on to help revamp the social welfare system in her native country. Cooney says after graduating, Patel returned to South Africa was taken into custody for her activism against apartheid. But he says Amnesty International and others worked to get her freed. Cooney says Patel is now very popular in South Africa. 

Looking back on the struggle against apartheid, Cooney says solidarity in the movement helped bring the system to an end. And he says people had to be willing to take a stand. Cooney says he expected to lose his job when he was arrested at a Board of Trustees meeting for his part in a protest. 

When asked why he wasn't fired and was eventually granted tenure, Cooney says he thinks people in the Social Work Department thought he was doing a good job with students. And he says "they did not want to make me a martyr."