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Mandela mourned by expats, Western Pa. residents

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By Adam Smeltz

Published: Friday, Dec. 6, 2013, 11:36 a.m.

Christopher Hahn fled his native South Africa in 1976, fearing a bloody revolution. He doubted politics would ever brighten in his country, fragmented and coarsened under white segregationists who cast blacks as inferior.

Then Nelson Mandela got out of prison.

“Before, it was a very simple thing: You would walk down a street, and people would be looking down,” said Hahn, 61, now the general director of the Pittsburgh Opera. “As soon as he was let out of prison, everyone looked up. It's those intangibles when you realize an individual can, despite enormous odds, persevere. How can that not be an example to all of us?”

Hahn and Alexander P. Bicket, an Allegheny County Court judge, both escaped apartheid rule before Mandela became South Africa's first black president, winning the nation's first multi-race elections in 1994. A day after Mandela died on Thursday at 95, they put his international influence on the scale of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi.

“I just hope that people will remember him for the sacrifices he made and respond the way he did: Avoid greed. Avoid the human conditions that we are so prone to,” said Bicket, 57, who left his homeland in 1982. “He came out and devoted those years to putting South Africa where he believed it should be — not as a black nation or a white nation, but a nation that is made up for all people, regardless of their history.”

A onetime boxer who was a lawyer and leading anti-apartheid activist, Mandela was convicted of treason and given a life sentence in 1964 for leading a sabotage campaign against the government. He was released in 1990.

White rulers portrayed Mandela as a terrorist at the spearhead of a communist revolution and argued black majority rule would bring chaos and bloodshed. Yet he won global praise as president from 1994 to 1999, developing a reputation as an icon of racial reconciliation.

Mandela in person appeared modest and self-deprecating, said Louis A. Picard, a University of Pittsburgh professor who met the leader when he researched South Africa in the early 1990s.

“He had normal interests. He liked to talk about sports. I don't get a sense that he was reading a lot of books or doing a lot of analytical thinking. He operated very much on the personal level,” Picard said. “That doesn't mean he was in any way superficial.”

Mandela's links to Pittsburgh include a trip in 1991, when he spoke at Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall in Oakland. Poet and anti-apartheid activist Dennis Brutus, who was once imprisoned in South Africa in a cell near Mandela's, held a faculty position at Pitt before returning to his country several years ago, Distinguished Professor Marcus Rediker said.

Brutus died at age 85 in December 2009.

“He was one of those people whose life literally was the movement,” said Rediker, who worked with Brutus on a campaign against the death penalty.

Mourning for Mandela continued Friday across Pennsylvania, where Gov. Tom Corbett called for U.S. and state flags to drop to half-staff until Monday evening at state facilities. President Obama issued the same order for flags on government property.

Black Voices for Peace, an ad hoc group in Pittsburgh, will pay tribute to Mandela at its weekly vigil on Saturday at Penn and Highland avenues in East Liberty, spokeswoman Gail Austin said. The hour-long vigil begins at 1 p.m.

“People — especially the mainstream media and the politicians — make mention only of his stance against apartheid. But Nelson Mandela was more than that,” said Austin, 67, of Manchester, who recalled his public opposition in 2003 to war in Iraq.

Austin was active in Pittsburghers Against Apartheid, a 1980s-era activist group. Mandela helped shape her view of activism, she said.

“I think more than anything, he's shown me that the nature of what we do in trying to change the world takes a very, very long time. It's a protracted struggle,” Austin said. “It's given me a sense to keep at it every day.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Adam Smeltz is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5676 or




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