Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela devoted his adult life to the struggle for freedom, and his golden years to leading the way for reconciliation. We may, through his passing, have lost the father of the South African nation, an incomparable Pan-African mediator, and a global icon for peace, but from his life we have gained the experience of true leadership and the legacy of a selfless statesman. The Institute for Justice and Reconciliation joins the rest of the world in mourning the passing of our beloved Tata Madiba and will remain eternally mindful that our work took root from his vision for liberation and continued commitment to the safeguarding thereof.
South Africa’s political transition during the 1990’s is one of the most remarkable tales of our time and, if that tale were to have a single protagonist, it would have to be Nelson Mandela. Of course the process was far more complicated than to reduce its success during a critical period to one person, and Mandela was the first to try and dispel the larger-than-life image that developed around his personality.
Although much of his life was spent fighting oppression and paying the price for it in prison, people the world over, many of whom knew little about South Africa’s history of struggle, associated him with one thing: reconciliation. Despite a lifetime of sacrifice Mandela was willing to reach out to his oppressors to encourage them to help build a new society, together.
This, as we can today say with the benefit of hindsight, has only partially materialised. Perhaps our expectations may have been exaggerated at the time, maybe we were underestimating the magnitude of the challenge, and sadly, it is possible that South Africans had forsaken this dream of an inclusive society for one where individual prosperity has become the ultimate objective.
While he remained the most revered person in the world, some within his own country came to blame Mandela and his brand of reconciliation for the country’s current challenges. “He sold out to the oppressor,” they say. This is unfortunate, because doing so betrays insufficient appreciation for the context during- and in the run up to his term as president. But moreover, it also suggests a one-sided understanding of reconciliation as an affective trait or phenomenon – in other words, “forgive and forget” – without due consideration for its strategic value. Those who miss this, miss the tactical genius of his leadership.
Time can blur memories, but it is worthwhile remembering the internal and external circumstances that prevailed at the time of South Africa’s transition. There was never doubt that the outcome of South Africa’s first democratic elections would be in favour of the African National Congress (ANC). Yet, if the ANC was to fulfill its promise of a democratic, safe, and prosperous country to an expectant populace, it was incumbent upon the organisation to craft the political stability that was required to embark, unencumbered, on its massive transformation offensive. It could have undertaken a massive retribution campaign to avenge centuries of oppression, but its consequences – a rightwing retribution and capital flight – would merely have resulted in the transfer of a wounded and conflict-ridden society from one regime to another.
Mandela’s reaching out to white South Africans was inspired by his sense of humanity, but also because he realised that the hopes and expectations of millions of disenfranchised South Africans rested on his ability to shape the environment in which this could occur. And, simultaneous to the internal process of reconciliation, it was under Mandela’s leadership that South Africa was reintegrated into the African landscape as well, and that we were able to extend our gratitude to our neighbours for the asylum and support they offered us in our struggle for liberation.
This was the brilliance of Mandela: his understanding that reconciliation was not an option, but a necessity. His was the task to lay the stable foundations of a new nation, which he did with unwavering dignity and humility, epitomising the philosophy of ubuntu. The failure to capitalise on this in subsequent years is ours, not his.
The Institute for Justice and Reconciliation is committed to building upon this foundation, laid by this great leader, by working to help realise fair, democratic and inclusive societies in South Africa, and across the African continent. We wish his family, friends and comrades, Africans and the international community strength during this difficult period, and call for the memorialisation of Mandela’s legacy through the progression and deepening of the reconciliation process that he brought us to.