With all the warranted tributes being paid to Nelson Mandela, by world leaders of all political persuasions, ethnicities, religions, and both genders, does it not seem strange that his legacy of forgiveness, reconciliation, fairness and truth-telling, lauded even by his former enemies like de Clerk, is so faintly, if ever, practiced by those who are so ebullient in his praises?
What's wrong with this picture?
First, words are much easier to utter than acts of forgiveness that lanced the potential conflagration that could and would have erupted had Mandela not calmed the waters, immediately following his release from prison in 1990.
Second, it seems that in our generation, only one such human being, royal by African standards, stoic by even Spartan standards, unequivocal by any standard worthy of the name, is permitted on the planet. While we all know that he is not the only truth-telling reconciler of the last half century, he is one of very few who became political leaders of their country, following a period of intense conflict and repression of the black race, and also following a period in his own life in which he advocated armed violence as the only appropriate response to the treatment of his people by the white government of South Africa.
Why is it that the political culture of other mere mortals is not equally as infused with balance, and with collaboration, and reconciliation, as was the culture Mandela encountered upon his release?
Or is it that the culture made it necessary for him to establish a mediating position, in order to gain the larger goal of a democratic country in which blacks could and would play an equal part in governing?
The elevation of one man, surely heroic and honourable and a role model of one so conscientiously committed to the cause of his life, at a very early age, is more than warranted, especially when we look at the comparisons we are faced with. However, not to make history merely the actions of a single man, there was a history to the African National Congress, that was not pretty, and the man had nearly three decades of silence in a cell on Robben Island, from which he could see Capetown, across the ocean, to reflect on how he might lead upon his release. Mandela also knew that there were millions of ordinary people, along with major government supporting the cause of lifting apartheid through public protests and economic sanctions. Political debates, especially to convince both President Reagan and Prime Minister Thatcher, that the world needed to take up the cause of the blacks in South Africa, when both of those Neanderthals argued for neutrality and non-engagement in the affairs of anther country.
Each of us, including all of the many political leaders who will gather at Qunu, to celebrate his life, and to make history of their own next Sunday, are capable of similar acts of forgiveness, reconciliation, peace-making and compassion, whether or not the situations we face bear similar parameters and dangers if we do not act in such a manner. And no matter the specific situation, whether it is Israel/Palestine or Syria, or Lybia, or Pakistan/India, or the many African conflicts that dot the continent on which the funeral for this great man will be conducted, it is Mandela's kind of courage, vision, integrity, and thoughtful reconciliation with our most hated and most dreaded enemies, and that kind of approach alone, that can and will bring a similar ceasefire, peace negotiations, truth and reconciliation commission(s) and ultimate ballot-box votes for solutions and for establishment of legitimate governments.
We see, and many of us have visited, the eternal flame that burns on the grave of John F. Kennedy in Arlington National Cemetery. The experience cannot but leave the visitor pondering the eloquence of the slain president, the promise of his second term, and the role model he provided for a whole generation of political leaders.
Can a similar flame, whether real or metaphoric, in memory of Nelson Mandela (Madiba), inspire a generation of political leaders whose only goal is to tell the truth, and to bring about reconciliation whenever and wherever they find deep and seemingly unresolvable conflict? And can another similar flame be lighted in honour of former Prime Minister deClerk, who also was willing to compromise, and to work with Mandela in order to establish a new and democratic country in South Africa, after decades of violence and repression?
Let's remember Mandela would have accomplished very little without the willing co-operation of his enemies. Agreed, he did provide a set of proposals and a table which would have been extremely difficult to reject and refuse. However that option was clearly possible...and had it been taken the world would not be holding such a massive thanksgiving celebration for the life of one of her greatest leaders....
Let's propose a Nelson Mandela Institute in each university in the world where political science and political philosophy and political ethics and conflict resolution are taught so that at least one generation will benefit from his example, and the world might become just slightly safer for all of our grandchildren.