South African SFA professor reflects on Mandela's legacy

NACOGDOCHES, TX (KTRE) - In Nacogdoches, a Stephen F. Austin State University professor of social work is participating in the 10-day mourning period for Nelson Mandela.

The South African citizen met and worked with her country's great leader, and today she is carrying on his legacy. The humanitarian influenced the woman's desire to help people, whether they live in South Africa or here in East Texas.

One could see the sadness in Dr. Emmerentie Oliphant's eyes. She wanted people to understand why the loss of Nelson Mandela is like losing a family member.

"When he was released from prison, our country was at a war. And I feel that he came out and he said we will make peace and we will not make war," Oliphant said. "And it's because of him that I am here today, my son is here today, and that so many South Africans are here today. He did not choose violence."

As a young graduate from a South African university, Oliphant was chosen to develop a Mandela program. It was for juvenile offenders. The kids resorted to a life of crime in order to survive. Oliphant said she'll never forget the day the center opened. Mandela was there.

"So I met him on the day of celebration in Zululand, in a very remote, rural area and he was very calm and quiet and very peaceful," Oliphant said.

When asked if she shook the South African leader's hand, Oliphant said, "Oh, I did, and I still have that memory with me, just as I always will remember where I was on Thursday."

When Oliphant heard of the leader's death, she was carrying on the Mandela legacy by helping the poor of East Texas. More importantly, she teaches others to help.

"I just wanted to be a part of that movement that is about change and bringing hope," Oliphant said. "President Mandela said, 'That the way we can change the world is through education.'"

Oliphant explained further when she was talking to her students.

"The squatter camp area, there is no running water, there is no electricity," Oliphant said. "Those are the houses they live in."

Miles away, the educator is still actively involved as a consultant to agencies in South Africa. She's leading study abroad so SFA students can learn and help to control poverty, disease, and crime.

Oliphant displayed some photos of South Africa.

"This was taken in the area where he'll be buried," Oliphant said.

"And a lot of these children are HIV-positive or AIDS orphans," Oliphant added "And this is a picture of an empowerment project. A community garden."

Oliphant will wear pins for Mandela and her country at least until he's buried, yet the leader will always be a part of her life.

"He was one of us, and he led by example," Oliphant said.

Violence in South Africa remains a big concern. Dr. Oliphant said she teaches in the U.S. for the sake of her son. He's a student at SFA.

Tuesday, East Texas News will focus on another SFA professor who was influenced by Mandela even though he lived far away, in West Africa. Mandela influenced him as a broadcaster and today as a government department chair.

Copyright 2013 KTRE. All rights reserved.