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Remembering Nelson Mandela, Who Honoured the Power of Reconciliation

This is the genius of Mandela; this is why we remember him.

On July 18, we remember and celebrate the life and achievements of a great leader Nelson Mandela.

But rituals of memorialising are hollow unless we ask ourselves the question, why do we recollect ‘this’ and not ‘that’ leader?

Nelson Mandela led the struggle against an inhuman political system in South Africa, and he skilfully piloted the transition from apartheid to democracy despite dire predictions that the country would descend into civil war. There is however much more to Mandela; a man of extraordinary courage, tremendous generosity, and remarkable vision. 

Mahatma Gandhi’s doctrine of non-violence influenced Mandela’s political strategy to some extent. In an essay on his political guru in The Time magazine of December 31, 1999, Mandela wrote of Gandhi who advocated non-violence when the violence of Nagasaki and Hiroshima had exploded upon us.

Both Gandhi and I, wrote Mandela, suffered colonial oppression, and both of us mobilised our respective people against governments that violated our freedom. I followed, accepted Mandela, Gandhian strategy as long as I could, “but then there came a point in our struggle when the brute force of the oppressor could no longer be countered through passive resistance alone. We founded Umkhonto we Sizwe and added a military dimension to our struggle.” 

On December 16, 1961 Umkhonto cadres launched five bomb attacks on power stations, and government buildings in Port Elizabeth, Durban and Johannesburg. Mandela and other leaders were tried and sentenced to life imprisonment in 1964, in what came to be known as the Rivonia Trials.

Umkhonto weSizwe founder Nelson Mandela, receives military training at an Algerian FLN camp in Morocco, 1962. Credit: South African History Online

Umkhonto weSizwe founder Nelson Mandela, receives military training at an Algerian FLN camp in Morocco, 1962. Credit: South African History Online

In the 1980s the apartheid regime had begun to negotiate with the African National Congress. In South Africa’s dreaded prisons Mandela began to conceptualise peace for his tortured land. The question that now confronted him was: how do social groups that a perverse history has locked into roles of the oppressor and oppressed learn to live together as fellow citizens? 

A political community cannot be founded on the empty language of legal entitlements; it has to be based on reciprocal obligations.  

Mandela had entered prison as a rebellious young man. By the 1980s reflection transformed him into a wise leader who was to steer his people through the ‘’valley of shadow’ into the sunlight of freedom.

As his release date drew nearer, he recognised that after the 1960 Sharpeville massacre his country had changed. Violence had been unleashed by some groups. Settlers began to demand an assured place at the high table of power. International commentators prophesied civil war. Given the context, Mandela’s speech on his release in 1990 is incredible. 

“During my life time,” he said, “I have dedicated myself to the struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. My ideal is a democratic and free society in which persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunity. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and achieve, but, if need be, an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

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This was an amazing statement from a man who had suffered imprisonment for 27 years. 

A free South Africa for Mandela had to be a compassionate country. People had to understand the frailties and the ambiguities of the human condition. Though his jailers in the three prisons were Afrikaners, he realised that their ideologies were not freely chosen. The sensibilities of human beings are shaped by the society they live in. That society is fashioned by state power. South Africa would see no peace until the whites realised they had to forsake their ambitions of domination, and unless the blacks recognised that Afrikaners could not be banished; they had nowhere to go.

Cuban President Fidel Castro, right, and African leader Nelson Mandela gesture during the celebration of the “Day of the Revolution” in Matanzas. Credit: YouTube

In a second significant speech, Mandela established the foundations of a democratic political community.  On April 10, 1993, one of South Africa’s most beloved leaders Chris Hani, was murdered by a Polish immigrant Janus Walus. Walus was connected with a white right-wing group opposed to majority rule. Hani’s assassination sparked off major protests, arson and violence across the country. He had been a popular leader of the South African Communist Party, and the Chief of Staff of Umkhonto we Sizwe.

Hani possessed great moral authority and played a crucial role in the multi-party negotiations that cleared the way to democracy.  It was generally accepted that Hani would succeed Mandela as President in 1999. Anthony Sampson in his Mandela, The Authorised Biography observed that the assassination deepened perception among whites, and some blacks, that Mandela would not be able to control the tide of violence that threatened to swamp South Africa, let alone establish and head a stable government. 

In the days following the assassination, cadres of the African National Congress tried to restore peace and calm passions by holding rallies and demonstrations. Mandela, determined to end the spiral of violence that could dislodge negotiations and the enactment of a Constitution, stepped into the charged atmosphere.

“Today,” he said in a speech broadcasted by the South African Broadcasting Corporation on April 13, 1993, “an unforgivable crime has been committed…The calculated cold-blooded murder of Chris Hani is not just a crime committed against a dearly beloved son of our soil. It is a crime against all the people of our country.”

Mandela took care to register that grief affected each inhabitant of the country white, black and coloured. “What has happened is a national tragedy that has touched millions of people across the political and the colour divide. Now is the time for all South Africans to stand together against those who from any quarter wish to destroy what Chris Hann gave his life for, freedom of all of us”.  

A woman flies a South African flag during the "Nelson Mandela: A Life Celebrated" memorial service at Cape Town Stadium December 11, 2013. Credit: Reuters

A woman flies a South African flag during the “Nelson Mandela: A Life Celebrated” memorial service at Cape Town Stadium December 11, 2013. Credit: Reuters

Mandela adeptly turned the raging debate between white and black into one that pitched peace against violence. “This is a watershed moment for all of us. Our decision and actions will determine whether we use our pain, our grief and our outrage to move forward to what is the only lasting solution for our country-an elected government of the people, by the people, for the people…We, must not let the men who worship war, and who lust after blood…when we, as one people, act together decisively, with discipline and determination, nothing can stop us”.

Mandela emphasised that all mourned Hani’s death, all were overcome with grief irrespective of the colour of their skin, each citizen sympathised with her fellow citizens. “Now it is the time for our white compatriots from whom messages of condolences continue to pour in, to reach out with an understanding of the grievous loss to our nation to join in the memorial services and the funeral commemorations.”  

The speech takes us right back to the eighteenth century, when Adam Smith spoke of sympathy as a bond that united humanity in his famous Theory of Moral Sentiments. People possess the ability to feel pain because they can imagine themselves in the position of others. In the same mode Mandela said:

“Tonight I am reaching out to every single South African, black and white, from the very depths of my being. A white man, full of prejudice and hate, came to our country and committed a deed so foul that our whole nation now teeters on the brink of disaster. A white woman of Afrikaner origin, risked her life so that we may know and bring to justice, this assassin”.

He turned the political discourse of racism upside down. Human nature cannot be seen in essentialist terms. We can connect to each other because we have the gift of imagination and sympathy. This is the foundation of society, this is the foundation of common citizenship, and this is the foundation of solidarity.

Students of South African history and politics suggest that this was the day when Nelson Mandela was accepted as the undisputed leader of the country by the blacks, the coloured and the whites. This was the time that South Africans begin to walk on the path that led to healing, and peace through reconciliation.

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In a third momentous statement Mandela outlined his vision for a democratic South Africa. This was in the aftermath of the first all-race elections on April 27, 1994, and the victory of the African National Congress under his leadership. In his inaugural speech Mandela said.

“The time for the healing of wounds has come, the moment to bridge the chasms that divide us has come, and the time to build is upon us…We know it well that none of us acting alone can achieve success. We must therefore act together as a united people for national reconciliation, for nation-building, for the birth of a new world. We enter into a covenant that we shall build the society in which all South Africans both black and white will be able to walk tall, without any fear in their hearts, assured of their inalienable right to human dignity-a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world.”  

Under Mandela’s stewardship South Africa initiated the project of reconciling with the past rather than retributive justice. The logic of reconciliation is that the past, howsoever harrowing it might be, cannot be forgotten or set aside. In order to know where we are at the present moment, we must know where we have come from. We cannot understand the present, or plan for the future without knowledge of history and awareness of roads taken and roads not taken. 

Forgetting, in sum, is not an option for history has a way of relentlessly intruding into collectively induced amnesia. Someone, somewhere, will recollect past injuries and pain.  Someone, somewhere, will deploy these memories to light a conflagration, and punish the descendants of groups who committed these horrific crimes. If conflict in history is not addressed and accepted, memories of violence will continue to fester and deepen the wounds of the body politic. 

 The Freudian assumption that suppressed trauma will inevitably remerge in destructive ways has to be taken seriously.  Societies that cannot come to terms with the past, or those who prefer to forget the past are fragile, ready to burst asunder at the mention of a pain-wracked history.  

We never know when violence will break out around some or other grievance of wrongdoing and injustice.  Societies can be set on fire if they fondly believe that they have forgotten, a mere spark is enough to do so. They have to acknowledge and accept that there is need to move on. Members may not forget, or forgive, but they should be able to accept the history of their country as irreversible.

A scene from 2009 film Invictus, Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon played President Nelson Mandela and Francois Pienaar, captain of rugby team, respectively. The film speaks of the aftermath of the apartheid and how one sport united the country. Photo: IMDb

Notably the process of reconciliation does not offer a magic mantra. The process is attended by a great deal of trauma and anxiety. Yet a number of theorists have advocated and supported the concept. The very realisation that perpetrators of human rights violations have conceded that they did wrong, has proved, in recent history, a therapeutic process. Victims feel that their pain, their humiliation and their trauma has been recognised or simply that they count.

At the core of the concept of reconciliation is the centrality of human rights, what should not be done to people, and what should be done for them. Reconciliation does not provide comprehensive solutions to the problems of the past; it seeks to change attitudes to historical injustice. Forgiveness may not be a key issue in reconciliation, it is more important to accept that wrong has been done, that the wrongdoer has accepted his crime, and that societies should now carry on. This was the lesson Mandela taught humanity. For this he should be remembered. 

The process of reconciliation was set in place in South Africa under the leadership of Mandela, and guided by the same principles that he had expressed publicly, his earnest desire and his determination that South Africa belonged to all irrespective of race and class. The transition from apartheid to democracy was largely peaceful in as much as there was no open civil war or large-scale bloodshed as international commentators had forecast.

This is the genius of Mandela; this is why we remember him.

Neera Chandhoke is former professor of political science, Delhi University.