The United States has George Washington, who led armed revolution, became the new nation’s first president, retired after two terms and rejected a presidency for life.
South Africa has Nelson Mandela, who died today at age 95. He set a powerful example for his nation and for the world.
A lawyer, freedom fighter and political prisoner for 27 years, he fought his entire adult life for majority rule in a representative democracy and a united South Africa that included all people, black and white. On trial for his life in 1964, he announced that “the ideal of a democratic and free society” is “an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve, but if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
He was sentenced to life in prison for advocating armed resistance. And yet he believed in negotiation and ultimately led a peaceful democratic revolution, a message all people who struggle for freedom ought to embrace. In his long life, Mandela saw South Africa’s first national, nonracial, one-person-one-vote election in 1994, with memorable photos of lines of people voting for the first time. He also became the first president of the new South Africa. Equally important, he stepped aside after serving one five-year term, institutionalizing an orderly transfer of power in a world replete with dictators and violent transitions.
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South Africa could have gone the route of the violent break-up of Yugoslavia and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Instead, Mandela played an essential role, along with F. W. de Klerk, dismantling apartheid and holding the country together.
From the late 1940s, the white Nationalist Party defined the country as a white republic where blacks, more than 70 percent of the population, were prohibited from being citizens in the land of their birth and were assigned to a “homeland” by ethnicity, with mass forced removals. Mandela called this “a monolithic system that was diabolical in its detail, inescapable in its reach, and overwhelming in its power.”
After 50 years of nonviolent resistance, Mandela persuaded the African National Congress to change course -- “when all else had failed, when all channels of peaceful protest had been barred to us.” At a time when the world increasingly lionizes nonviolence, Mandela exposed its weaknesses. He wrote in his autobiography that for him, “nonviolence was not a moral principle, but a strategy; there is no moral goodness in using an ineffective weapon.”
So the ANC committed to a course of limited violence –in a way that would not create enduring hatreds or a cycle of revenge, giving the other side a choice. The ANC targeted military installations, power plants, telephone lines, transportation links, empty government buildings and symbols of apartheid to weaken the economy, scare away foreign investment and bring the government to the negotiating table – without loss of life.
His hope, he said at his 1964 trial, was to “bring the government and its supporters to their senses before it is too late, so that both the government and its policies can be changed before matters reach the desperate state of civil war.”
It took another 27 years for that realization to come.
South Africa went into a period of serious political violence and international isolation in the mid-1980s. Mandela, while in prison, took the risk of beginning secret talks with white government – without the prior knowledge or approval of the ANC: “If we did not start a dialogue soon, both sides would be plunged into a dark night of oppression, violence and war.”
The problem, however, was that “both sides regarded discussions as a sign of weakness and betrayal” – demanding irreconcilable preconditions. “Someone from our side,” he wrote, “needed to take the first step.”
This was the big, calculated risk that broke the deadlock, where most observers expected a horrible racial war. It led to a “negotiated revolution,” Mandela’s aim from the beginning. His personal qualities – a profound lack of bitterness, generosity of spirit and genuine desire to create a South Africa for all South Africans – set him apart as one of the great leaders of the 20th century.
The outside world, too, played a role and Mandela expressed his thanks. In 1990, not long after his release from prison, Mandela addressed 60,000 Californians at the Oakland Coliseum, making it clear that “the pressure exerted on the apartheid regime by yourselves” helped bring the government to the negotiating table.
Mandela’s legacy is a peaceful democratic transition in a deeply divided society that was headed toward a bloodbath. He declared in his first and last inaugural address: “Never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another and suffer the indignity of being the skunk of the world.” Mandela left an indelible mark on his nation and on all nations, and taught us all about the meaning of freedom.
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