Mandela, the result of ‘89’

As a number of international figures descended to share and celebrate Nelson Mandela’s 89th birthday yesterday (July 18) the recognition given to him by Archbishop Desmond Tutu perhaps captures the man and the spirit, Mandela has come to represent in this new world order of strife and conflict. Tutu declared, “How God must love South Africa to have given us such a priceless gift. You bowled us all over by your graciousness, magnanimity and generosity of spirit.” And inspite of the many real and profound criticisms I have heard of Mandela from various respectable Africans, one cannot but give due recognition to Mandela for showing the world that one can and should forgive ones enemies while still confronting the system that caused the hatred in the first place.  

When Nelson Mandela became leader of the new South Africa, he not only forgave his white jailers and people responsible for the apartheid system, but also those who the people had every reason to consider as traitors. For instance, Magosuthu Buthelezi, a man who in the late 1970s formed the Inkatha Freedom Party, which collaborated openly with the apartheid government, and kept a secret army trained by the government to weaken the African National Congress (ANC). The Inkatha Freedom Party is said to be responsible for causing at least 30,000 casualties, including ANC leaders. 

Mandela however chose to transcend this brutal past and brought Buthelezi into the new government. Mandela apparently took this step to end the internal violence which had been threatening to destroy the liberation struggle in South Africa. It suggested that any process of resolution, reconciliation and reconstruction must center on a future in which every individual feels a part of, rather than stagnating around selective events of an acrimonious past. This was seen as a sign of openness towards building an understanding for a political vision, demonstrating political astuteness. 

These developments occurred within the realization that perceived internal divisions are a reality in liberation struggles. Ron Kraybill says, ‘Go to any place in the world where there is an armed struggle for liberation that is more than a few years old, and you are sure to find deep conflict within the liberation struggle.’ Often this has meant groups engaging in combat not only against the common oppressor, but against each other.

Ron attributes this to ‘the simple logistical difficulty of communicating. Liberation movements rarely possess the financial and human resources required to maintain good communication.’ This is compounded by absence of flexibility, consensus building, and letting go of the past which is required for building a vision that embraces the aspiration of people. Eventually, lack of adaptability and adjustment cause differences where drastic measures are employed and former comrades-in arms part ways.  


A proverb reads, “If the only tool you have is a hammer, everything you see is a nail.” There is acute tendency to assume that the only tool available is a hammer, and the remedy for all problems and disagreements. This could result in tragic consequences and raises concerns of rights and accountability, because ‘all could be justified in the name of the struggle.’ This causes inflexibility and failure to offer unequivocal apologies required to enable healing, which often haunts memories on all sides of the internal dynamics. 

Over time, divisions, competition, mistrust and confrontation within the struggle becomes institutionalized. This is skillfully cultivated by the State to cause divisions that cause obstacles in their struggle for freedom. The question of forgiveness is inevitably a political decision required to ensure the vibrancy and vitality of the struggle. Is it possible?