I have been listening to the outpourings in the World Service on the death of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela. I’m sure those Africans out on the streets of the townships singing his name and dancing know full well what his life meant. His greatness was not simply in nation building, and being the first black president of South Africa. All that is true, but it is only half the story.
When I was an active student, Nelson Mandela was still a prisoner on Robben Island. Those of us who held him in some regard and helped with campaigns to boycott South Africa and for his freedom were constantly reminded by our opponents that he was a convict, a terrorist. I did not then, and I do not now agree with violence and armed struggle, but I do concur that it is valid, indeed often necessary, to take action to oppose a legally sanctioned but nevertheless inhuman and manifestly unjust system. His 27 years incarceration, subsequent election as president of the country and success in defusing so much of the bitterness and understandable vengefulness that could have overflowed at the end of apartheid, should have lessons for us.
I am struck that so many of those lauding Nelson Mandela today will be those who have also been at the forefront of proclaiming a war on terror. Without a hint of irony they will totally ignore that they too would likely have Mandela imprisoned on similar anti-terrorist legislation had he taken his action today. Will those leaders and governments take any lesson from that? If they really want to remember him they would look to their own actions in the light of what his life has shown us:
Humanity will always eventually win out over legality;
Coercive power is futile;
Forgiveness is the power of the victim.
Finally a quote from the trial in 1964. “During my lifetime I have dedicated my life to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal for which I hope to live for and to see realised. But, My Lord, if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”