From the majority of what was said at the memorial of the historic South African leader Nelson Mandela, it appears that there is a consensus that he will go down as one of the greatest leaders in history. Mandela was able to use tolerance and wisdom to triumph over one of the worst apartheid regimes in history, establishing a new state in South Africa based on equality. This made him a source of inspiration for the entire world, and the South African leader enjoyed the respect of both the East and the West.
A large part of this respect is due to Mandela’s own dignity, and his ability to overcome his suffering at the hands of that racist apartheid regime. Mandela was imprisoned at the age of 44—and he was only released 27 years later, when he was 71 years old. Despite this, he sought to reach a political formula to ensure a peaceful transfer of power to a new state based on equality between the two parties of the conflict: the black indigenous majority and the white immigrant settlers. Mandela preferred this solution, rather than allowing himself to fall prey to the instinct for revenge.
He spent the best part of his life in prison while the regime that incarcerated him severely oppressed South Africa’s black majority, who made up 80 percent of the population. During an exclusive interview about his life in 2007, he was asked how he overcame his suffering at the hands of the apartheid regime. Mandela answered: “When you are working for a future in which you act for the best interests of everyone in that society, you cannot afford the luxury of revenge.”
This is the most important lesson we must take from the life of Nelson Mandela. He was not just a spiritual leader or the inspiration for the liberation movement in South Africa. Rather, the most prominent aspect of his personality was that he was an astute politician who was able to steer the ship towards the best political solution. As a result, South Africa was able to move towards becoming a modern state, instead of remaining a prisoner of the past.
The entire world was well aware that the apartheid regime that denied 80 percent of the population their rights represented a historical fallacy, and that its end would come in spite of its strength or its possession of nuclear arms. But nobody imagined that this end would come through a peaceful solution. There were predictions that South Africa would enter a prolonged and bloody civil war, with an endless series of reprisals. This is indeed something that has happened—and is happening—elsewhere, in a number of countries across the globe.
Mandela was aware of this, and he was convinced that South Africa’s salvation would only come as a part of a solution that included political collaboration between the two sides. Mandela began his prolonged negotiations with the apartheid government from prison in 1984. His political shrewdness can be seen in his dealings with the African National Congress, which rejected the idea of negotiations at the time. Mandela rejected the idea of violence despite the fact he had practiced it in his youth. At the same time, he sought to reassure the white minority—which had monopolized the reins of power and the state—that there would be no climate of revenge, arranging a formula that would guarantee the participation of both parties in political power.
That plan came to fruition two years after his release from prison in the form of an agreement to transfer power with F.W. de Klerk, with Mandela becoming president of a majority African government following general elections. Mandela and de Klerk were later awarded a joint Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts. But following his first presidential term, Mandela was not keen for a second term; perhaps he had run out of political energy after years of prison and negotiations.
As a politician, Mandela viewed his society in the correct way, despite the clear injustices that the majority of South Africans suffered at the hands of the apartheid regime. He chose the solution of co-existence, rather than engaging in a bloody conflict whose outcome would be expensive and would only end with outright devastation.
However, other societies and countries have failed to benefit from this lesson, for one reason or another. Thus we still see unending rivalries and conflicts, with hatred escalating every day without any ability to reconcile with the past, which is the basic requirement for moving forward. That is why in so many crises, we hear the saying: “We do not have a Nelson Mandela here.”