Nelson Mandela's Address to Amherst College

May 12, 2005
St. Bartholomew’s, New York

President Marx, Chairman Hostetter, Chairman-elect Zeitlin, Trustees, Students, Friends:

The world today faces problems of staggering proportions, as we in South Africa know all too well. Fueled by the cruel efficiencies of globalization, economic inequality is growing, not declining. The natural balance of our environment is at risk. HIV and other pandemics scourge the population. Too many of us still face hunger and repression.

But we in South Africa also know that even the most daunting of challenges can be met. Ten years ago a new and brave country was born out of a long and difficult struggle. Many in the world doubted if we could find peaceful resolution, but we did. Even as problems remain for us, South Africa reminds the world that we can overcome struggles that may seem insurmountable.

In that spirit, we salute Amherst College. In this world under threat, colleges and universities remain our best hope. Your central mission, the pursuit of truth, must lead the way.

We depend on you for leaders who care for, are engaged in and will serve the community, who are schooled deeply and broadly, in all corners of knowledge. We depend on you to point us toward solutions to our problems. That is what our scholars and teachers and students have always done, must always do, for, no one else will.

We challenge you further. We in South Africa believe that all can learn—that there are more who are capable of learning, at the very highest levels of education, than are given the chance. Even the ravages of apartheid in education could not keep our own people down. But systems that still deprive educational opportunity anywhere must change and open. We must change them, to foster talent everywhere, to the benefit of all, because that is where our commitment to fairness lies—or is given the lie. This is where our ideals and compassion must be matched by action.

From the first Amherst College has been a leader in educational access. You were founded on a moral imperative by abolitionists who wanted to train indigent young men to improve the world. From your early years, you could claim distinguished black alumni. You have become a leader of American higher education, a leader in geographic, racial, ethnic diversity, and in aid for those less advantaged. We salute you.

Today we ask Amherst College, and all of America’s great colleges and universities, to do more. The challenges of ensuring full access, according to ability rather than wealth or privilege, have not been met. Until they are, we will forfeit some of the talent and genius that the world sorely needs. We cannot afford the loss.

All institutions of higher education have the obligation to open the door more widely. Above all, those who educate most rigorously carry the highest obligation. You have the quality, the ability, the standing, and the support to press further. I hope you will show the will. Let Amherst set the pace as you have done before.

Colleges and universities, by themselves, cannot solve the problem of access. For all too many young people, the battle has been lost years before they might enter college. In my country and in yours, the need is urgent to turn our hearts and resources toward public primary and secondary schools. They, too, must be supported to be made adequate to the demands of our connected and imperiled world.

We call on Amherst, on all of America’s great colleges and universities, to work toward correcting the inequities in the public schools. In South Africa, in America, in all the world—we must provide education, not as a privilege, but as a right; not for some, but for all. Let the doors of learning open.

America’s great colleges and universities have shown vision and spirit in the past. It is partly by their vision and power that you have grown to become the dynamic, wealthy, privileged nation you are today. Do not let the temptations of privilege and power dissuade you each from that mission for which your founders labored and for which we look to you. I come to remind you, to implore you, to show us again the image of fairness, compassion to which we are called.

I come from a country that understands the need for hard work to overcome past destructiveness and to escape a threatened future. But, we have also learned that miracles happen with vision and spirit. The world needs that vision and spirit from you still, and all the more. We are all threatened by entrenched inequality and divisions. We all must prove ourselves equal to a better possibility. We are all South Africans now.