On Tuesday, hundreds of politicians made their way to the huge FNB Stadium in Johannesburg, South Africa’s largest city and the beating heart of the country’s economy.
From the political left to the political right, from the least to the most senior official, from near and far, the world’s politicians came so that it could be said that they had participated in the memorial of one of the world’s very few remaining leaders who could truly be described as historic.
The reality is that regardless of the speeches that were made and the feelings that were expressed, Nelson Mandela remains far more important than the vast majority of those who attended his memorial. For the majority of those who flocked to the memorial, their expressions of appreciation towards the absent hero served to increase their own standing more than Mandela’s own.
Mandela entered history because he was a man who believed in a moral and humanitarian cause. He fought for this cause with unrelenting steadfastness and determination. When he was finally victorious, he showed loyalty to both those who had supported him and those who had defended him while he languished in prison. He also magnanimously forgave his opponents, rejecting revenge and retaliation, leading the political process to form a genuine “nation”—as opposed to “tribal homelands”—where all South Africans could live together and enjoy the right of full citizenship, protected under the law.
We have never seen such a consensus on principles in the past, and there is no guarantee that we will see anything like this today, at least not in terms of the broad gathering at the huge stadium under the Transvaal rain.
Many of the leaders who came to Mandela’s memorial represented countries that were very slow to criticize the racist apartheid regime that sought to silence Mandela. There were also leaders of other countries that still have parties and factions that adopt—albeit to a lesser degree—discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity and religion. These parties gamble on this form of discrimination in their political battles, even if it is taking place through various democratic institutions, and their politicking focuses on issues such as illegal immigration, affirmative action and more. As for the discourse about Mandela’s greatness, I heard somebody say: “If there was no Nelson Mandela, Barack Obama would never have been elected president.” Such talk deserves serious contemplation, regardless of Mandela’s own assessment of America’s first president of African descent.
Many had perhaps expected “rivers of blood” in South Africa when Mandela and the African National Congress came to power in one of the world’s most diverse and mixed countries. Some had also expected capital to flee the land of diamonds and gold, particularly given the left-wing leanings of the great man. But Mandela was able to lead the country on the path to stability and peace, thanks to a policy of transparency, mutual recognition of mistakes, forgiveness without hypocrisy, and hope for the future by overcoming the bitterness of the past. This was thanks to his wisdom and that of those who worked with him, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, not to mention the insights of F. W. de Klerk, the last white president of South Africa, and some of his partisans.
Mandela realized the value of South Africa’s white community, particularly to the country’s economy. He was aware of the white British and Afrikaners’ high levels of education and administrative skills, not to mention that they possessed a large proportion of the country’s resources, particularly, in relation to the size of their population. He also accepted the fact that they were “South Africans” too as long as they described themselves as such. In fact, is how the white minority view themselves, being the descendants either of the Boer farmer-settlers or other whites who became the creators and investors in South Africa’s cities, mines and projects. Mandela acknowledged their citizenship in return for their own acknowledgement of the citizenship of South Africa’s black and “colored” communities. Mandela chose to share bread with South Africa’s white community without discrimination or hatred. He also understood the importance of an intermarriage between a form of socialism that respected the humanity of the poor and disadvantaged and the need for efficient economic administration to preserve and develop the country’s wealth.
The role of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was also pivotal in clearing the psychological land mines in South Africa. The core of the Commission’s philosophy could be summed up as a desire to move towards the future from a background free of prejudice, misunderstanding, fear and injustice. This Commission was led by Tutu—the friendly, witty and life-loving Christian cleric who enjoys close ties with all parties in the international community. It was thanks to Tutu’s efforts that the TRC succeeded in its mission. The TRC hit the target by publicizing the wrongness of exclusionist discourse and views, succeeding in convincing all South Africans that the boat was big enough to accommodate everybody so long as all parties would be prepared to coexist and look to one future, rather than falling prey to past rivalries. This was required not just between South Africa’s black and white communities in general, but also within each individual community, namely South Africa’s white Afrikaans and English-speaking communities, and also the country’s major black Zulu and Xhosa communities.
South Africa’s TRC, indeed, must serve as a lesson to the Arab world, particularly during the painful Arab Spring, which seems as though it will only end after our countries have divided and communities split. It is a lesson based on appreciating the value of “unity in diversity” and ”integration within pluralism.” This is the direct opposite of moving closer and closer towards mass suicide, as confronting intolerance with counter-intolerance can only lead to mutual destruction. In this regard, I believe that the latest developments in the Middle East, including US–Iranian rapprochement and Egyptian–Turkish separation, should alert the wise to the threat that is rising in the region and the fear that leads to despair which, in turn, can only lead to senseless violence, which is more akin to cutting off the nose to spite the face.
Now we come to the role of de Klerk and the other wise people among South Africa’s white minority. They understood that history was in the making and that the world never stops progressing. They were aware that the old colonial mentality of dealing with diversity was no longer viable. They must have had in mind how the Suez Crisis in 1956 turned the page on traditional British and French colonialism in the Middle East in favor of US–Soviet rivalry. The next stage was the weakening of the Soviet Union and its eventual collapse. Following this, many constants in the international arena collapsed, not just in Africa and Asia, but also in Latin America, which Washington historically viewed as its backyard. So while the US did not find the authoritarian regimes in the East useful, it viewed military juntas in Central and South America as a costly liability. This is how the dictatorships in South Korea, Philippines, Indonesia and Pakistan were retired, and the sun set on the dictatorships in Chile, Bolivia, Argentina and Guatemala.
De Klerk and the wise among South Africa’s white community realized that the concept of the “white bastion” had reached a dead end, preferring partnership within the framework of a viable state of judicial and democratic institutions over a costly civil war in which no party would be victorious. Adopting civilized and responsible conduct, they chose to gamble on the future rather than remaining stuck in the past. The result was that they lost a fragile colony, but in return won a country that is now one of the world’s promising powers and economic powerhouses.
This is a lesson for all of us, and particularly for those who prefer to destroy their homelands rather than giving coexistence a chance.