I don’t know about you but when I heard the news that Nelson Mandela had passed away, tears pooled in my eyes. I felt sad that he was gone, glad he was no longer physically suffering, and most of all so very grateful for what he did not only for the people of South Africa but for the example he set for the world. Instead of the blood bath predicted by many when apartheid (finally) ended, he orchestrated a peaceful, though not painless, transition to a new inclusive democratic government.
Mandela was not only a great moral leader, he was politically smart. Over four years, he forged what is called a grand compromise with de Klerk and the Afrikaners to create a coalition government. He believed it was the best way to advance the rights of the majority black population.
Truth and Reconciliation Commission
He endorsed the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and upon receiving its report said in part, “It may be difficult for many to accept the finding that the apartheid state was the primary perpetrator of gross human rights violations. Yet if we are true to our founding pact, we cannot equivocate about a system which exacted such inhumanity. There can be no dissonance with regard to the clarion call: Never Again!”
Read his complete statement here.
These last few days, I’ve been moved to read about Mandela and his legacy. I came across a 60 Minutes story from 1997 that included a chilling account by a former South African security police captain. It also has short bits of footage from a few of the victims and perpetrators giving testimony at the TRC—a horrific reminder of how bad apartheid truly was. I could barely stand to watch even a few minutes of this, yet the Commission members did so for seven years. Imagine the emotional fortitude that took. They must have believed in the power of truth to begin to bring closure to a terrible past and start on a path of national healing.
“Our past will no longer keep us hostage,” Archbishop Desmond Tutu said, “We who are the rainbow people of God will hold hands and say, ’Never again! Nooit weer! Ngeke futhi! Ga reno tlola!’”
Read a brief summary about the findings and developments of the TRC.
Truth and Reconciliation Versus Prosecution
There are those who believe to this day that some of the compromises Mandela made—primarily agreeing to provide amnesty to perpetrators rather than insisting on prosecuting them—fell short of the justice needed for reconciliation to take full effect. Some say that the TRC didn’t go far enough: that at minimum it could have required apologies and community service, for example, in addition to truth telling. Today, economic disparities remain in South Africa, with blacks still poorer than whites. Clearly, there is more to be done to bring about true equality. This article in the Huffington Post provides a brief history and discussion about the current situation in South Africa.
The question of the value and validity of the truth commission versus prosecuting those who committed human rights violations is a question being studied. Perhaps some version of both is needed to bring about healing and the ability to look forward toward a hopeful future rather than live in a painful past.
One paper on the subject by Mark S. Kende that I came across concludes, “Though neither approach can fully remedy horrible human rights violations, most African countries are better off relying on truth and amnesty, and basing prosecution on deterrence rather than retribution.”
Nelson Mandela’s Legacy
In my view, neither the imperfections of the TRC nor the fact that there is more work needed in South Africa to realize the vision of harmony and equality, detract from Mandela’s achievements. They indicate just how difficult a task he faced. People in power do not give it up easily. Mandela could have been released from jail sooner had he been willing to drop his cause but he refused to give up his vision of freedom. Though he made some difficult compromises, he did avoid civil war and brought democracy to his country. Imagine the emotional and intellectual capacity and fortitude that took. He faced his oppressors and his political opponents with skill and courage, offered up a vision and a plan for executing it, and provided both moral and practical leadership through one of the most tumultuous times of his nation. In so doing, he became an example to the world.
He chose freedom above all else—for himself and for his people. My favorite quote is the one Bill Clinton has shared on the news recently. In response to the question whether he hated his oppressors, Mandela said, “Of course I felt old anger rising up again, and fear. After all, I had not been free in 27 years. But I knew that, when I drove away from the gate, if I continued to hate them, they would still have me. I wanted to be free, and so I let it go.”
I will close by offering you this YouTube clip where Mandela made that statement in response to hearing the lovely Johnny Clegg song “Asimbonanga” [We Have Not Seen Him]. Clegg wrote and performed this song while Mandela was still in prison. It called for his release. Listen and watch this version where Mandela dances to it with that broad smile of his, the one that reaches his eyes. Enjoy!
How does Nelson Mandela inspire you? What do you think about the idea of a Truth Commission? What do you think it takes to achieve reconciliation after hurtful and violent conflict?