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Mandela's legacy proves forgiveness the better strategy

Publication Date : 10-12-2013

 

The world is entranced as it ponders the passing of South Africa's revered former president Nelson Mandela. As we mourn his passing, the giant's success in dismantling the morally outrageous system of legal discrimination known as apartheid and ushering in a new democratic government formed on a blueprint for racial harmony deserves our study.

According to Keith Richburg, a journalist who visited the country in the early 1990's, South Africa was on the verge of being torn apart by a violent race war in which both black and white wouldn't have held back in slaughtering each other, Richburg writes in his article, “Appreciation: Nelson Mandela averted what many had expected — an all out civil war”.

Mandela embraced nonviolence as a strategy to disarm his opponents, to bring about political and socioeconomic change, and to unite the nation. “For me non-violence was not a moral principle but a strategy; there is no moral goodness in using an ineffective weapon,” Mandela wrote in his memoir.

His presentation of the trophy to Francois Pienaar, the captain of the newly bi-racial Springbok rugby team — previously seen as an example of white power — after its victory over New Zealand in 1995 is a moment that became etched in history. It is a symbol of his reconciliation with his foes in order to start the country anew. In the same year, Mandela also sat down for tea with Betsie Verwoerd, the widow of the architect of apartheid Hendrik Verwoerd.

It's important to also recognise Mandela's transformation from a die-hard activist who embraced violence before he began his 27-year prison term. He co-founded the paramilitary organisation Umkhonto we Sizwe, or “Spear of the Nation”, in 1961 after repeated violence against blacks convinced him to take up armed struggle. Throughout Mandela's prison term, he also repeatedly rejected offers by the government to release him in exchange for renouncing violence. Thus, his ultimate legacy as a peacemaker should be seen as the culmination of a long process, not as part of an uncritical deification.

Mandela should also be given enormous credit for leading the enshrinement of the protection of gender rights, namely LGBT rights, in the South African constitution. It is the first document in the world that, on a constitutional level, outlawed discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Today, South Africa remains a deeply polarised nation economically. Tremendous economic disparity remains between blacks and whites in the country. But the very fact that the country did not fall into a violent race war is a tribute to the better future that Mandela ushered in.

In a defining speech in 1964 in a Pretoria courtroom, Mandela eloquently laid down the case for tearing down apartheid, the system of discrimination in the country that used laws to segregate the living quarters, jobs, and social spaces available for blacks and whites.

“(Black South) Africans want to be paid a living wage. Africans want to perform work which they are capable of doing, and not work which the Government declares them to be capable of ... We want to be allowed, and not to be obliged, to live in rented houses which we can never call our own. We want to be part of the general population, and not confined to living in our own ghettoes ... We want to be allowed out after 11 o'clock at night and not to be confined to our rooms like little children ... We want a just share in the whole of South Africa,” Mandela said.

The desire for dignity goes hand-in-hand with the craving for a better material life. The abuses that Mandela listed had to be countered by a shift in attitude as well as reforms that gave all citizens a fighting chance at rising above poverty.

One indicator of Mandela's success is the cementing of a national identity. In an indicator of national cohesion called “stateness”, studied by political scientist John Sides, a massive leap in pride at being South African is seen in the country's black population from 1982, when just 57 per cent expressed such an opinion in contrast to 98 per cent of whites, to 90 per cent for blacks and 93 per cent for whites in 1990, after Mandela's release from prison.

“The way to deprive the extremists of popular support, and therefore to disarm them, was by convincing the white population as a whole that they belonged fully in 'the new South Africa,' that a black-led government would not treat them the way previous white rulers had treated blacks.” says John Carlin of the El Pais newspaper, commenting on Mandela's strategy.

Mandela's wisdom and perseverance combined to create a world illuminated by the beacons of humanity's best qualities, those of freedom, justice, forgiveness, and peace. He was not perfect, but his legacy teaches us to realize that love and forgiveness are the most effective weapons against our foes.

 

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