MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts

Personal Statement

Charlene Smith was born in South Africa and became a journalist who covered resistance politics against apartheid. She also joined the underground resistance fighting apartheid. A good cook who always believes there is room for more at her table, there was a joke in the underground that she’d become Mandela’s cook after his release.

She lived briefly in Japan and Argentina as a correspondent for the Los Angeles Times and returned to South Africa in 1989 after a good friend, David Webster, was assassinated by an apartheid death squad.

She was soon asked by Archbsihop Desmond Tutu and a small consortium of human rights advocates and lawyers to start the first research into government death squads; this formed the seedbed of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that was formed in 1996.

Nelson Mandela was released in February of 1990, and Charlene was asked to find somewhere for him to stay on his second night out of prison. The following day she was one of the first journalists to interview him on his return to Soweto.  He asked her back to interview him four times that week and a warm friendship developed.

In 1997, Charlene’s first book, Robben Island, was published by Random House. It is about the prison island Mandela and generations of black prisoners, slaves, lepers, and the mentally ill were housed on.

Two years later, her authorized biography, Mandela: In Celebration of a Great Life was published.

The photograph of that book launch (above) shows Charlene standing next to her old friend, Cyril Ramaphosa, deputy president of the African National Congress, her son, Matthew, Graca Machel (Mandela’s third wife), and Mrs. Ramaphosa. Seated are Nelson Mandela and Jacob Zuma, South Africa’s present president.  That book was dramatically revised in 2013 and relaunched.

Charlene has also made four television documentaries on Nelson Mandela, one of which won an award for Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, and in 2013, her book Mandela and America was also published.

Because she had extreme rightwing parents who never believed in girls attending university, and because the struggle against apartheid was the focus of her life, Charlene, who has had fourteen books published, and won more than a dozen awards for her writing and human rights work including activism for the rights of those with HIV and AIDS,  had no formal degree before attending Goddard. She had some university courses behind her, but Goddard College accepted her based on her experience and recommendations from Archbishop Tutu and Cyril Ramaphosa, who some believe will become South Africa’s next president this year.

Charlene says she at first struggled to adapt to the Goddard process:

“I relied a lot on my fantastic peers initially to motivate me. [Faculty Advisor] Ruth Wallen encouraged my fledgling love of photography, which has grown into a passion; Ju Pong Lin fostered that, and Otto Muller and Andrea Parkins pushed me into areas that challenged and inspired me.  As a result I believe I have two more books, in addition to the one I was already working on about prescription drug overmedication and addiction. I’ve focused on advanced narrative non-fiction and photography at Goddard, and have been blown away by the advances of my peers in sculpture, animation, fine art, singing, music, and you name it. I’ve been blessed to have the greatest peers in the history of Goddard. Our graduation in June will be bittersweet. I have learned so much from them, and so many others who have given of their expertise so generously.”

Charlene is expected to graduate in June 2014 from the MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts Program.