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Focus our sorrows on Mandela’s gift

- By Erna van Wyk

American scholar and activist, Professor Gay McDougall paid tribute to former president Nelson Mandela during her acceptance speech after being awarded with a degree of Doctor of Laws (Honoris Causa) from Wits University on Monday, 1 July.

McDougall, who served on the first Independent Electoral Commission during the 1994 elections, remembered fondly how she stood by Mandela when he voted for the first time. “I had the tremendous privilege to stand by Nelson Mandela when he achieved one of his great ambitions when he casted his vote for the very first time in a democratic, non-racial South Africa,” she said. Click to listen to the audio. 

She told graduands from the Faculty of Commerce, Law and Management that in South Africa as well as all around the world this is a “time of great anxiety and sorrow, but I hope that we all can focus our emotions on the tremendous gift that his (Mandela) life has been to all of us worldwide.” Click to listen to the audio. 

Having fought both for Civil Rights in the United States and against apartheid in South Africa, McDougall said it is possible to bring about change in any society. She highlighted the lessons learned from Mandela’s life: “Your great, elder leader has taught the world about the power of personal courage; he has taught us that it is important to make your life into something that is larger than yourself…. A truly good and great life teaches you something: It is not about what you receive, but what you give… ”. Click to listen to the audio. 

McDougall presently holds the position Mulligan Distinguished Visiting Professor of International Law at Fordham University Law School in New York City. Her contributions to the field of law and human rights are considered by her peers to be innovative, influential and visionary. 

As a scholar and activist in the field of Human Rights law and practice, in South Africa she is well known for her contribution to bring about the end of apartheid and role integral role she played in helping South Africa shape its ground-breaking Constitution. 

In the early 1990s, McDougall served as Director of the Southern Africa Project of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights under Law, based in Washington DC. It was in this capacity that, during 1993, McDougall acted as the principal organiser of a six-part series of international consultations on constitutional options for a post-apartheid South Africa. These consultations were held in South Africa and were aimed at providing the pre-1994 negotiating teams with international comparative legal systems for the development of the new South African Constitution. 

These consultations led to consideration of issues, such as, re-organising the judiciary, developing a South African specific understanding of affirmative action programmes, the idea of a national public defender service (the current Legal Aid South Africa), constitutional guarantees of gender equality, and evaluating electoral systems. 

So marked was McDougall's contribution to the pre-1994 negotiation period that she was appointed to serve on the first Independent Electoral Commission to oversee the 1994 elections in South Africa. She served in this capacity between January and June 1994, as one of five non-South Africans on the 16-member statutory and constitutional body. 

To read her full citation, click  

To listen to the full audio of her address, click  

For a high resolution image, click here