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Why Nelson Mandela matters

/ 10:52 PM December 23, 2013

News of Nelson Mandela’s death triggered widespread displays of grief and remembrance around the world. The icon of South Africa’s struggle against apartheid, Mandela actually founded in 1961 the Umkonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), the armed wing of the African National Congress, to start its armed struggle efforts. He had by then lost hope in  the chances of peaceful efforts achieving real change. While it is conceivable that he could have gotten a lighter sentence at his trial, his four-hour speech during his sentencing led to a life sentence for him and his fellow conspirators.

In 1990, after 27 years in prison, he was released by then-President F.W. de Klerk, with whom he shared the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize.

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Mandela was a man of iron will who would not let his captors control his soul. He prevailed, spurred by the poem “Invictus” by William Ernest Henley, which ends with these lines: “I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul.” Eventually his resolve won the respect of even his hardline captors.

But Mandela in the twilight years of his life also realized that armed struggle alone, with the destruction of the whites who lived in South Africa as a goal, would not solve their country’s problems. Mandela instead chose the path of righteous peace.

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Rather than push for an exclusive democracy, he chose the “Rainbow Nation” approach—involving even those who had oppressed him and his people, if they would choose to leave their old way of apartheid and join the rest of the South Africans in building their nation. He showed this when he decided to go against the popular sentiment of the blacks at that time, to remove the Springboks, then a popular South African rugby team, because it symbolized apartheid’s oppression. Instead he changed the Springboks’ image by having its members teach rugby to the blacks at the poor townships (the blacks often played soccer instead), and having the Springboks memorize the new national anthem. This led to South Africa’s famous World Cup victory against New Zealand in 1995.

One of the things done in South Africa was the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission chaired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. While the commission was not perfect, it was thought to have advanced the proper transition from the apartheid period. Rather than emphasize justice, it emphasized reconciliation with truth. The commission had the power to grant amnesty if the crime committed was politically motivated, proportional and there was full disclosure of the truth about the crime. And it was applied not just to the whites but also to the blacks.

We have yet to organize our truth commission to cleanse the national conscience and bring about genuine reconciliation and rehabilitation. We must forgive but we must never forget. In the words of a philosopher, “Those who forget their past are condemned to relive it.”

Heherson Alvarez is currently a climate change commissioner. He used to be a senator and a Cabinet member and was a leader of the opposition to the Marcos dictatorship. He campaigned to cut US military aid to the Marcos regime. His brother in the Philippines was tortured and killed.

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TAGS: History, Nelson Mandela, people, politics, South Africa
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