Democracy icon to send off graduates

Posted

Tuesday, May 1
BENNINGTON — Mac Maharaj, a central figure in South Africa's anti-apartheid struggle and the man who smuggled Nelson Mandela's autobiography out of prison, has been chosen as Bennington College's 2007 commencement speaker, according to a memo sent to students and staff Monday by College President Elizabeth Coleman.

Maharaj, who joined the College's faculty in 2005 after participating in a conference on democracy earlier in the year, is the subject of a recently released and critically acclaimed biography, "Shades of Difference: Mac Maharaj and the Struggle for South Africa."

In his forward to the book, excerpted in a press release issued by the college, Mandela writes, "Mac put the struggle for the freedom of South Africa above everything in his life ... there was no element of bravado to what he did. His concern was simple: to see that the struggle continued and triumphed ... All of us, including me, are indebted to him."

Struggle was a key component of Maharaj's life as an underground member of the African National Congress (ANC). In 1964, Maharaj was arrested and sentenced to 12 years in prison on Robben Island. In a 2006 interview with the Banner, Maharaj said he was "detained without trial ... tortured extensively and brought to trial four months later."

After his release, Maharaj left the country illegally and went to Zambia, where the head of the ANC was in exile. He was appointed secretary of the Internal Political and Reconstruction Department of the ANC.

After re-entering South Africa clandestinely, Maharaj became commander of Operation Vula in 1988, and for the next two years, he returned to the helm of underground operations and coordinated a program of armed resistance against the apartheid government.

Mandela was released from prison in 1990, and Maharaj resurfaced without disclosing that he had been living in South Africa illegally. However, the apartheid government found out, and he spent six more months of prison for his violation of the law.

Upon his release, Maharaj became part of the ANC's delegation in the negotiations for a new constitution. Three years of negotiations later, elections were held, Mandela was elected president, and South Africa's transition to democracy was underway.

Mandela appointed Maharaj as minister of transport in 1994, shortly after becoming president. Maharaj served in South Africa's parliament until 1999, and he remains one of Mandela's closest colleagues, evidenced by his membership on the Nelson Mandela Foundation executive committee and his recent work as co-editor of "Mandela: The Authorized Portrait," which included essays from former President Bill Clinton and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

Now, Maharaj spends half the year as a professor at Bennington College, sharing his insights into democracy with undergraduates. His courses have included: South Africa's Road to Democracy, South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and Nelson Mandela: Choices and Consequences, among others.

"I was excited about what I saw about (Bennington's) approach to education," Maharaj said in 2006.

Coleman, speaking in 2005 about Maharaj's recent appointment to the college's faculty, said, "Mac Maharaj goes way beyond an intellectual grasp of democracy. He has lived democracy in its most intense and heroic moments ... we are delighted and honored to have him as a member of the Bennington community."

Maharaj will address Bennington's graduating class of 2007 on June 1.


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