When Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990, South Africa was a catastrophe waiting to happen. Had Nelson been anything but Mandela – anything but that exquisitely modulated blend of common sense, compassion and authority – the whole place could well have gone up in flames.
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I was there in the days leading up to the 1994 elections, when Zulu impis were marching through the streets of downtown Johannesburg and die-hard racists were planting bombs and threatening a race war. Things were falling apart and the center wasn’t holding; South Africa was on the brink of civil war.
It’s no exaggeration to say that one man held it together. Had it not been for Mandela – for his dedication to the proposition that people can live together despite their differences, as well as for the profound influence he had over black, and increasingly white, South Africans – things might have turned out very, very badly. One man can – and did – make a difference.
It’s depressing to think of how many lives might have been saved, had Mandela been able to play a legitimate political role during the 27 years he spent in prison. How millions of kids might have been educated and groomed for productive lives, instead of being thrust into poverty and crime. How so many of the problems facing South Africa today might have been forestalled, had an evolutionary political transition been able to happen.
Mandela died last night after a long illness – the long-term effects of tuberculosis, which he contracted in prison –and the world will rightly mourn him. But will all those who eulogize Nelson Mandela really appreciate the greatness of the man and the miracle that he wrought? Will they understand not only his greatness, but the obstacles he had to overcome? And will they learn the lessons?
It's worth remembering that Mandela abandoned formal politics in the early Sixties and went underground, as co-founder of the Umkhonto we Sizwe liberation army. He did so not because he was a bloodthirsty terrorist but because he had finally understood that all peaceful methods of opposition to apartheid were closed to him, as they were closed to his colleagues. Mandela, a man of peace, took up armed rebellion.
He didn't last long underground. He was captured, convicted on charges of sabotage and treason in 1964 and sentenced to life in prison. The apartheid regime predictably called him a terrorist. It took 27 more years, during which time Mandela was imprisoned, for the regime to understand that he was, in fact, a savior – and of all the country's citizens, whites as well as blacks.
What we can all learn from Mandela is the importance of being human, not of being right. He was a man of deep empathy; able to look at his opponents during the negotiations over South Africa's future and see human beings; people with their own histories and myths; their own hurts and their own desire for dignity. He recognized the common humanity in all people, even in his enemies.
Peace talks, Mandela said, succeed when concessions are freely made and all parties believe that they have won more than they have lost. Dictates and ultimatums are good for starting wars but not for reaching peace. Or, as Mandela put it: “Only free men can negotiate; prisoners can't enter into contracts.”
The South Africa that he leaves behind him is still a broken country. Poverty and violence are rife; corrupt governments – the result of wholly insufficient black education under apartheid - have been hopelessly inadequate in correcting the ravages of apartheid. But it is a country with a chance. The racial madness of decades is over and there is still time to heal. Mandela's life is now over, but his life's work continues.