Edwin T. Smith, a native of South Africa who was exiled during the fight against apartheid in the 1980s, earned a psychology degree from Rutgers University–Camden in 1995. He returned to his home country in 1999, five years after apartheid ended, and is now the manager of campus operations at the Mamelodi campus of the University of Pretoria in Pretoria, South Africa. He is currently working on his Ph.D. in history in the Department of Historical and Heritage Studies in the Faculty of Humanities at the University of Pretoria.
As a high school student in South Africa in the 1980s, I was active politically in the struggle against apartheid. That activism led to my exile and my being denied the chance to attend university in my country. It was Rutgers University–Camden that offered me an opportunity to pursue a university education.
Just a few years earlier—on June 16, 1976, to be exact—student uprisings had started in Soweto in Johannesburg and soon engulfed the entire country. Hundreds of school-aged youths left the country as a result, and the African National Congress (ANC) established the Solomon Mahlangu Freedom College (SOMAFCO) in Morogoro, Tanzania, in exile in 1978. I attended SOMAFCO and completed the necessary university entry requirements in 1990 before coming to Rutgers–Camden.
At SOMAFCO, the library was a central part of my educational experience in exile. Therefore, when I arrived at Rutgers–Camden and saw its massive library, which was in the heart of the campus, I fell in love all over again. Because I only had a tuition-waiver scholarship, I had to raise the rest of the money I needed for my studies at Rutgers. I also had promised to bring two of my fellow comrades I had left behind in Zimbabwe over to the U.S. for further study. When the Rutgers scholarship offer arrived while we were in Harare, Zimbabwe, my comrades decided it would be prudent for me to take the opportunity. They were of the opinion that, of all in our small group, I was the one most likely to succeed in ensuring that the rest of them would make it to the U.S. as well.
As a result of this “covenant,” I worked the entire time I studied at Rutgers–Camden to earn the money for my obligations to the university and traversed New Jersey, Delaware, and Pennsylvania on speaking engagements to raise money for my compatriots. I changed my major from premed to psychology because I could not keep up with the demands of my academics while also raising money to bring my comrades to the U.S. Several of my professors at Rutgers–Camden organized for me to speak to their networks in their communities and to “pass the hat” to collect funds for my endeavors. In this way, many of my professors became close friends and associates in our common effort to support the education of South African exiles.
My first job at Rutgers–Camden was in the technical services division of the library, to which I quickly grew attached. Through the Campus Center, then headed by Cal Maradonna, I also worked in other areas, such as the cafeteria in the basement of the Law School. Both my comrades and two other South Africans eventually gained undergraduate degrees from Albright College in Reading, Pennsylvania, through the support we were able to raise.
Being a civic-oriented citizen, I also got involved with student life and ended up working with the Black Student Union to rename the library in honor of Paul Robeson, the great American intellectual, political leader, and cultural pathbreaker. Robeson was a remarkable Rutgers alum whose life and struggles impressed me greatly. I was very pleased to be part of the process that culminated in acclaimed actor Avery Brooks (Commander Benjamin Sisko of Star Trek: Deep Space Ninefame), who also was a Rutgers–New Brunswick alumnus and faculty member, presenting a one-man performance of Paul Robeson to a capacity crowd in the theater on campus, with Paul Robeson’s son in attendance, on the occasion of the renaming of the library in 1991.
While I was totally smitten with the library on campus, I was startled to discover they did not have the Heinemann African Writers Series collection, which I learned about and read while at SOMAFCO. I promptly visited Gary Golden, the director of the library, to ask about this anomaly. Without batting an eye, Dr. Golden asked that I get working on putting together such a collection and provided me with the necessary budget to purchase the books.
One of the more enduring habits I cultivated while at Rutgers–Camden was that of collecting books, particularly South African, African, and African American history and literature. It was among the stacks at the Robeson Library that I first discovered Leonard Thompson’s A History of South Africa and Allister Sparks’ The Mind of South Africa. Having read Bloke Modisane’s work in SOMAFCO, I had been searching for his autobiography, Blame Me on History, for almost seven years. I finally found a copy of it in a one-dollar-sales bin in a bookshop in Mount Laurel, New Jersey.
Apart from collecting and reading books, I also wrote and published while at Rutgers–Camden. I was editor-in-chief of The Gleaner, the student newspaper, as well as serving on the editorial board of the Quintessence, the student literary magazine. I also published an opinion piece and an article in the Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia Inquirer Magazine, respectively.
Gerald Massenburg and Tom DiValerio, working under Cal Maradonna in the Campus Center, saw it fit to formally rope me into student activities, and so evolved a lifelong friendship and camaraderie between us that continues until this very day, 30 years later. This working relationship also led to our involvement with the establishment and running of the Council for Southern Africa, which was officially launched by Rutgers President Francis Lawrence and Eastern Cape Premier Raymond Mhlaba in 1996. Under the leadership of then-Associate Provost David Wilson, now president of Morgan State University, I served as inaugural director of the Council for Southern Africa until my final return to South Africa in 1999.
In conclusion, I met remarkable students, faculty and staff at Rutgers–Camden, many of whom have become family across the physical divide and distance between South Africa and the U.S. over the 30-year span of my connection to the university. Rutgers University–Camden sank its claws so deep into my life that, even though I now work at a university in South Africa with a campus bookshop much like the one in Camden where I used to buy clothes when I was a student, I continue to wear Rutgers-branded clothes, even to University of Pretoria events in South Africa and around the world.