Other strife-torn countries need a leader like Mandela

Posted Saturday, Jun. 15, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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Listening to reports of Nelson Mandela’s failing health, I can’t help thinking how different the world would be if the former South African leader could have been cloned.

So many times, in countries plagued by sectarian conflicts and bloodshed, I’ve heard people say: “If only we had a Mandela.”

Mandela’s genius was his ability to forgive former enemies, along with a charisma that persuaded his black countrymen to do likewise — and convinced his white countrymen that he meant what he said.

Such generosity of spirit is so rarely found among leaders of other troubled nations — think Syria or Iraq — as to be almost unique to Mandela. In tribal cultures, forgiveness is too often seen as weakness; the pursuit of justice is too often confused with the pursuit of vengeance. This leads to ethnic cleansing and civil war.

Yet Mandela’s acts of forgiveness — as the leader who negotiated his country’s transition to black rule and served as its first black president, from 1994 to 1999 — were not the product of sainthood.

They were at the core of a visionary strategy developed during decades in prison.

It is a strategy that could save many countries from disaster if it were followed. But without a Mandela-like leader, it can’t succeed.

I spoke to Mandela about his strategy in an interview in Johannesburg in 2000. Receiving visitors in a round sunroom with an imitation thatched roof, and wearing a trademark black and white shirt, the then-81-year-old reflected on why he chose pragmatism over revenge.

“The leadership of the ANC (African National Congress), who spent 30 years in exile or went underground or were in prison, have no time for revenge,” Mandela said firmly. “They know they pass through life only once and want to use (their time) to solve the problems of their country. That is why we avoided bloodshed and confounded the prophets of doom.

“We had the ability to resolve the confrontation between our emotions and our brains, which said, ‘Why slaughter each other when we can sit down and negotiate?’ ”

Mandela said he developed his strategy during his 27 years in prison, 18 of them spent in harsh conditions on Robben Island, off Capetown.

I visited his tiny cell with Ahmed Kathrada, a former ANC prison-mate of Mandela’s who recalled: ”When we landed at the prison, one official said, ‘In five years, no one will remember the name Mandela.’“

Unbowed, Mandela used those years to plan how a multiracial South Africa might one day function. ”It is tragic to spend the best years in prison, but prison has certain advantages,“ he suggested. “In single cells, you … have the opportunity to think (that) we don’t have outside. You are able to mold your own emotions … your own morality.

“But I wouldn’t advise anyone to go to jail (for this),” he added with a laugh.

Just imagine if there had been an Iraqi Mandela, a leader from the Shiite majority willing to work with, if not fully forgive, the Sunni minority that had oppressed his sect for decades. That country might now be knitting itself together and fully developing its oil riches. Instead, Iraq’s Shiite leadership, paranoid and vengeful, is squeezing a frightened and angry Sunni minority back into sectarian war.

Or imagine if there were a Syrian opposition leader with the courage and credibility to convince members of Bashar al-Assad’s minority Alawite sect that his exit wouldn’t lead to their expulsion.

The absence of such pragmatic visionaries elsewhere only highlights the good fortune of South Africans in having had such a leader.

And it explains the concern of many that, in the absence of Mandela’s moral stature and calming charisma, even South Africa might start falling apart. Let’s hope that his memory will sustain his vision for his own country.

But, sadly, Mandela-ism has yet to take root in the wider world.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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