The day that many South Africans have long dreaded finally came, Madiba has died. This is a time for mourning and sadness, but it is also a time to celebrate the life and achievements of an icon for peace and perseverance that helped give modern South Africa a new lease of life.
Cast your minds back two to three decades to the days of Presidents Botha and de Klerk, and the final years of the Apartheid system. Make no mistake, this was a nation in turmoil. Nationalist white South Africans represented by the ruling National Party had been in a desperate struggle to suppress, disenfranchise and resettle the non-white population. However, they increasingly found themselves on the losing end as demographics became more unfavourable, international boycotts began to take their toll on the economy, and violent protests were becoming commonplace. The nation was unravelling and the increasingly sporadic acts of violence led many to believe that a civil war on a greater scale than that in Rhodesia (today Zimbabwe) was imminent.
There were many important figures that dissented against the regime and became integral parts in South Africa’s transition to a democracy. However, it was Mandela’s remarkable leadership qualities (given the great deal of anger among blacks and the intransigency among whites) that made it possible for the two diametrically opposed sides to find a political solution that brought about peace and reconciliation.
On a personal level what perhaps impressed me most was Mandela’s deep-rooted desire to understand the Afrikaner people and the position of the National Party. In his autobiography, A Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela described how he learned Afrikaans during his 27 year internment (18 of which were spent on Robben Island) and read some of the great Afrikaner poetry, much of which dates back to the Boer War and helps explain their inherent desire for independence and self-determination as a volk from oppressive British colonial rule.
Mandela fervently believed that the exclusion of whites and redistribution of their property was not the way forward for a new democratic South Africa. Not only did it take an incredible personal magnanimity to be able to hold that view after having spent almost three decades in prison, but it took a wise politician to see that such a tactic would likely be even more disastrous than the Rhodesian lesson.
His attempts of symbolically supporting inclusion in the new “Rainbow nation” went even further when Mandela showed up to the 1995 Rugby world-cup finals (rugby is a popular sport among Afrikaners) in a Springbok jersey in support of an almost entirely white team.
During his presidential term he made further reconciliatory gains through the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). As opposed to pursuing retroactive justice it aimed at bringing victims and perpetrators face-to-face in order to discover the truth and past wrongdoings. Although sometimes criticised for allowing criminal acts to have gone unpunished, the TRC is now often considered a model for successful truth commissions.
Perhaps the euphoria surrounding the emergence of a new South Africa set expectations too high. In spite of the corruption, discrepancy of wealth, poverty, rampant crime, unemployment etc. one must remember that South Africa is dealing with the destructive legacy of Apartheid. Mandela’s death is a time not only to remember his extraordinary contribution, but it is also a salutary reminder to its future leaders not to stray too far from Mandela’s ideals and above all his magnificent magnanimity.