The Lessons of Mandela



Nelson Mandela: He may be gone but there are enduring principles he left behind that we can follow.

Many men have been done lesser evils than those done to Nelson Mandela and have gone on to live and die in some backwater of unforgiveness and bitterness. But not so Nelson Mandela. Despite the great evils done to him and his people he went on to become a statesman and a hero, giving the world a legacy it will never forget. So we need to look at what that innocent man suffered and how he dealt with it for lessons in how to deal with what we also might suffer, though on a lesser scale.

Born in 1918 into the Thembu royal family of the Xhosa people Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela would no doubt have enjoyed a comfortable and somewhat safe life had he decided not to challenge the racial segregation thrust upon his country by Dutch and English Colonizers; but he wouldn’t leave it alone. In the early 1940’s he joined the African National Congress (ANC), the militant organization that would fight against and eventually end official racism.

But the racist government wouldn’t yield and in 1948, after the South African general elections, in which only whites were permitted to vote, the Afrikaner Nationalist Party instituted the brutal system of racial segregation we now know as Apartheid. Under it blacks were further subjugated.

South Africans were classified into four racial groups; native, white, colored and Asian.  But it was the blacks, the natives, who suffered the most. The Group Areas Act forced South Africans to live where the government determined and blacks were moved into disease infested and crime ridden ghettos, such as Soweto and Sharpville. They had to carry identification—pass cards that restricted their movements; and they were given the worst services and amenities under the Separate Amenities Act. The state also passed the Bantu Education Act aimed at educating the blacks to become a permanent laboring class. He opposed the system and fought against it, even promising to take up arms. The government began to persecute them. In 1952 the ANC began a campaign of defiance against apartheid with Indian and communist groups; the membership of the organization swelled as people enlisted to overthrow the system. Learning of it, the government arrested Mandela and gave him a nine month sentence suspended for two years.  This was his first and lightest brush with the wicked system.

When he and Oliver Tambo opened their law firm it immediately became popular with blacks who were being brutalized by the police. It was the first black law firm in the country. The government canceled their office permit, forcing them to relocate to another area of the city not as accessible to their clients; the number of those seeking their services declined. In 1955 Nelson was banned; and in 1956 he was arrested for High Treason  ‘against the state.’  After a six year trial he and those arrested were found not guilty, to the embarrassment of the government.

But the government was determined to silence him forever. In 1963 he was arrested and charged with sabotage and plotting to overthrow the government.  He and two co-accused were found guilty and sentenced to life in prison— they were lucky to escape the death penalty.  He would serve 18 years in the dank, lonely prison on Robben Island, 4 miles off the coast of Cape Town. There he spent his days breaking rocks and almost ruining his eyesight in the blinding sun;  he was for a time forbidden to wear sunglasses.  It was also there in the dampness that he caught the tuberculosis that was to ravage his health and finally take his life.

Any man suffering anything like that might feel he is entitled to hate his persecutors, seek revenge, and if he ever comes to have any power over them, to use everything at his disposal to do to them what they did to him. We would have forgiven Nelson Mandela had he this in mind when he was released in February 1990. But he was too noble a man. Instead of seeking retribution and carrying out a vendetta against his enemies, and the enemies of his people, he sought reconciliation with the white ruling power and worked to bring all groups together.

He assured the white population that they should fear nothing from him as President and the ANC, which was now in power as a result of winning the 1994 elections. To demonstrate this he retained many of the white ministers of the previous regime; even white Nationalist  Apartheid  officials became ministers of  Energy, Environment and Minerals. Zulus were also included in the government.

He was overgenerous to his personal enemies. He appointed Frederick De Klerk— former President who had run against him in 1994 for the Presidency— as First Deputy President in the government.  De Klerk was now second to him. When Mandela moved into the Presidential office in Cape Town he allowed De Klerk to continue living in the Presidential residence though  it was his prerogative to reside in it as the new President.  Instead he chose to occupy lesser accommodations.

He also directed the formation of the now famous Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate crimes committed under apartheid, not only by the former White Nationalist government, but also by his own organization, the ANC. Of course he was widely and harshly  criticized for forgiving  his enemies, for showing  magnanimity and for seeking  reconciliation; even his own wife at the time, Winnie,  accused him  of being more interested in appeasing  whites than in helping blacks.

But we all now agree, that it was Nelson Mandela’s  efforts to forgive and to seek reconciliation that  prevented his country from descending  into anarchy when blacks came to power.

What are the lessons we can learn from Nelson Mandela to help us in official and personal life?  Of course not all that he did can be replicated or imitated in every context. Sometimes law forbids doing so; but there are enduring principles that we can follow.

We must be prepared to forgive those who have hurt us. Though we can’t always forget the past, and change what has happened to us, we can let go of bitterness and hate, as natural as they are and as justified as we feel in cherishing them. To refuse to forgive is to refuse to release the past, to somehow live in it, and in some measure to put ourselves under the power of those who have hurt us.

Then we must seek reconciliation as far as it depends on us. Much of the enmity and strife in the world today persists because people refuse to be reconciled to those who hurt them. Of course not all of those who hurt us are amenable to reconciliation, and many people refuse to be reconciled; but we must offer it and we must accept it whenever it is offered. Countries, nations and families are being torn apart because people refuse to be reconciled, because of wrongs committed sometimes centuries before.

But Nelson Mandela has shown us that the way forward is to forget the past and hold out our hands to our enemies; if they accept us, we move forward together. There are no greater lessons than these.

Ewin James is a freelance journalist who lives in Florida.

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