Lessons from Nelson Mandela

Published: Sunday | December 8, 2013 Comments 0
A poster of Nelson Mandela on which mourners have written their messages of condolence and support in the street outside his old house in Soweto, South Africa, last Friday.-AP
A poster of Nelson Mandela on which mourners have written their messages of condolence and support in the street outside his old house in Soweto, South Africa, last Friday.-AP

Ewin James, Guest Columnist

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 approach our own sufferings, 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 colonisers. But he wouldn't leave it alone.

In the early 1940s, he joined the African National Congress (ANC), the militant organisation 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 a 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, coloured 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 - which restricted their movement; and they were given the worst services and amenities under the Separate Amenities Act. The State also passed the Bantu Education Act that aimed at educating the blacks to become a permanent labouring class.

Nelson Mandela and the ANC 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 organisation 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 brutalised by the police. It was the first black law firm in the country. The government cancelled 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, four 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 tuberculosis, which 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, 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 also 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 ruling 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 F.W. De Klerk, former president and 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 organisation, the ANC. Of course, he was widely and harshly criticised 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 transactions? 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 hurt us.

Then we must seek reconciliation as far as it depends on us. Much of the enmities and strife in the world today persist because people refuse to be reconciled to those who hurt them. Of course, not all of those who hurt us are amenable to reconciliation, for many people refuse to be reconciled; but we must offer it and we must accept it whenever it is offered. Countries, peoples and families are being torn apart because people refuse to be reconciled; because of wrongs, some of which were done even 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; and 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. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and eroyjames@aol.com.

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