Former Morehouse School of Medicine President Reflects on Mandela

Nelson Mandela at Morehouse College

I first visited South Africa in 1994, while I was Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), to review our HIV/AIDS program.  I was also in the audience at my alma mater, Morehouse College, in 1999 when President Mandela was awarded an Honorary Degree.  But I had not met President Mandela.  So, when I was invited to the South African Embassy to meet President Nelson Mandela in 1999, while serving as Surgeon General, I was almost overwhelmed with respect and admiration.  That same year I took on leadership for the Mandela administration’s US/South Africa Bi-National Commission (BNC), co-chaired by Vice President Al Gore and Deputy President of South Africa Thabo Mbeki, as head of the BNC’s health component.    

I cannot remember what I said the first time I met President Mandela, or what he said to me, but I have always felt that I did not take adequate advantage of that opportunity.  There are things I wished I had asked and things I wished I had said.   However, as I have thought about it over the years, I realized that it is actually not so important what you say on an occasion like that but what you hear and what you feel.  Perhaps the most important thing that I could have said to him was just, “Thank you - thank you for your courage, thank you for your sacrifice, thank you for the spirit with which you have lived your life.”

Even today, I am motivated in my life and work by having met President Nelson Mandela.  I still cannot understand how anyone can spend 27 years in prison fighting injustice and come out with the spirit of love, reconciliation, and courage for which Mandela will be remembered.  We can endure injustice without being overcome by it, he has taught us, and we can rise above attitudes and prejudices that often give rise to systems of injustice.

Indeed, we can overcome. At Morehouse School of Medicine, we continue with our commitment to overcome the epidemic of obesity.  Now, the NFL has made a commitment that has already impacted the lives and behaviors of millions of children.  But the job is not done.  So today the NFL, the National Dairy Council, GENYouth Foundation, and others renew our commitment for five years.  But you need to make or renew your commitment to a lifetime of physical activity and good nutrition.  You also need to commit to helping other children to make the same commitment by sharing what you know and what you have experienced.  So, more important than who you meet here today or from whom you hear, is that you leave here armed with the knowledge and in fact the spirit that will propel you to a lifetime of physical activity and good nutrition and a spirit that will lead you to help others to do the same.

Dr. David Satcher is a former US Surgeon General and former president of the Morehouse School of Medicine.