by Rhodri C. Williams
Its not such a shock given his long period of declining health, but it is truly a loss. On rare occasions when I have been asked to name my heroes, Mandela was always the first name to spring to mind and the only virtually un-caveated endorsement I could make.
It is hard to imagine anyone else in our lifetime who so actively and consciously wrought such an unlikely positive story out of what had been an unmitigated negative factor in world affairs. Whatever your views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, imagine a leader emerging who could not only resolve the conflict but render the region an inspiration to the rest of the world. It’s a stretch.
I am old enough to remember a Cold War world where Mandela was both a powerful symbol and a cypher. Obscured behind the walls of Robben Island, he was rendered no more – and no less – than a potent name to be shouted at protests against an all-powerful system of structural racism. I recall regularly hurling the man’s name at the South African residence in London (conveniently near the dorm where I followed my Dad on the study-abroad program he taught). I had not the least idea who he was, beyond the most prominent victim of an odious injustice.
And that is precisely what made the decisions he took upon his release in 1990 so breathtaking. He could so easily have decided to narrowly define his political community and exclusively promote its interests, joining the arid list of creeps and charlatans that steered their moments of breathless post-Cold War indecision into a tunnel of dissolution and violence. Gamsakhurdia, Milosevic, Samuel Doe, Than Shwe, there was no shortage of names in the pantheon and room for plenty more. But he had already chosen a different way, and he stayed true to it.
In a fine piece in Foreign Affairs, Ryan Irwin explains how Mandela came to prominence early by developing a broad coalition across South Africa’s numerous social and political cleavages, denying the Apartheid government legality by presenting a unified opposition front with a vision of the inclusive, just and legal country South Africa could one day be.
This is precisely the type of strategy that activists sought to employ early on in Syria – and which was successfully countered by an Assad regime strategy of predicting an ethnic bloodbath and then taking calculated steps to make one happen. How Mandela succeeded in holding together a narrative that secured peace is little short of miraculous.
There is no doubt that South Africa remains deeply troubled and potentially volatile in the wake of the Marikana massacre. But had it not been for Mandela, South Africa in 1992 could have dwarfed the conflicts in Bosnia and Rwanda and set in train a devastating regional conflagration. By the grace of Mandela, it did not.