As soon as he heard about Nelson Mandela's Dec. 5 death, Washington and Lee University politics professor Tyler Dickovick thought back to the moment in 2002 when he had a chance to introduce himself to the revered South African leader — and couldn't.
Dickovick, associate professor of politics at W&L, was in Cape Town conducting research on his dissertation when he wandered into a bookstore.
"I noticed about 30 or 40 South Africans looking into the bookstore window, apparently at me," recalled Dickovick, who has written extensively on issues of decentralization and democracy in Africa. "My wife glanced over my shoulder and saw Mandela there. She said, 'Go up and talk to him.' The social scientist in me thought it would be the greatest informal interview ever, but I couldn't bring myself to do it. I couldn't just walk up and say something to him."
During the past several days, as he listened to coverage of the South African leader's life and remembered his own close encounter, Dickovick said he realized what a meaningful moment it had been for him to stand there and to realize that he really had a hero, "that there are people who do something above and beyond what we expect human beings to do."
In the years since that day in Cape Town, Dickovick has often taught about Mandela in his comparative politics classes at W&L. He admits that those lessons are challenging for him still.
"My predilection is to think that there are lots of social forces that are beyond any one person's control that really shape events," said Dickovick. "Mandela challenges many of my assumptions. He has made me question what an individual means, what a single person can mean in something as large, as huge, as world-historical as a nation becoming a democracy, a continent changing.
"I'm most often inclined not to believe that one person can do that much. Those exceptions are so compelling — whether it's Martin Luther King or Gandhi — and Mandela was the one in my lifetime. He was the one in my lifetime who not only changed his country but, as I think about it, arguably brought about the final end of colonialism. To have someone of that kind of significance, I think, for me, it's important to think about and, when possible, to teach about those people."