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SUNY Buffalo Law dean reflects on Mandela

The life and death of Nelson Mandela particularly touched SUNY Buffalo Law School Dean Makau W. Mutua, a native of the East African nation of Kenya and a fellow champion of human rights in Africa.

Makau W. Mutua

Makau W. Mutua

“Nelson Mandela, the last of the modern political greats, lived a life like no other,” Mutua said, adding that his death “leaves the global stage with no one of comparable stature save for his iconic countryman Archbishop Desmond Tutu.”

Mandela, who died Thursday, gained international renown for leading South Africa into democracy and serving as its first democratically elected president. He is being remembered as a consummate politician as well, a leader who incorporated into his governing coalition even those apartheid supporters who engineered his 27-year imprisonment on political grounds.

“Mandela’s impact on the world is indelibly printed on the pages of history and the sands of time,” Mutua said. “He showed both Africa and the world that the racial hatreds of our epoch can be overcome, even if that remains an elusive goal. Mandela leaves a void that may not be filled for another century.”

Mutua worked closely with Dullah Omar, the late South African minister of justice and close Mandela confidant who established South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. This restorative justice body heard testimony on gross human rights violations under that nation’s apartheid segregation system. The commission, a groundbreaking idea at the time, was chaired by Archbishop Tutu. Mutua also worked with the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, which advised Omar on how to reform South Africa’s legal system after apartheid.

“It is truly astounding today to think that the United States considered Mandela and the African National Congress, of which he was the leader, terrorists,” Mutua said. “President Reagan vetoed sanctions against the all-white racist apartheid regime that imprisoned Mandela for nearly three decades. In 1986, Reagan’s veto was overridden by Congress to pass the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act. In 1985, Gov. Mario Cuomo led SUNY in divesting its holdings in companies doing business in apartheid South Africa.”

Mutua was educated at the University of Nairobi, the University of Dar-es-Salaam and Harvard Law School. As a law student, he picketed the South African Embassy in Washington, D.C., over the apartheid issue. His research and teaching center on international human rights law, draws on his experience, especially in Africa.

In 2002-03, while on sabbatical in Kenya, Mutua chaired the Task Force on the Establishment of a Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission, which recommended a truth commission for Kenya. In that capacity, he worked closely with Archbishop Tutu, who advised Mutua on establishing the truth commission. Mutua also was a delegate to the National Constitutional Conference, which produced a contested draft constitution for Kenya.

In 1994, Mutua was a member of the U.S. delegation that observed the first all-race democratic elections in South Africa which made Mandela that nation’s first black president.

In addition to his scholarly writing and articles published in the popular press, Mutua has conducted numerous human rights, diplomatic and rule of law missions to countries in Africa, Latin America and Europe. He serves as SUNY Distinguished Professor and the Floyd H. and Hilda L. Hurst Faculty Scholar at SUNY Buffalo Law School.