At Liliesleaf Farm in Rivonia, Johannesburg, there is a story often told about Nelson Mandela. The African National Congress had been banned, and the young Mandela was in hiding at the Liliesleaf farmhouse, planning the armed struggle against the apartheid state. He was learning to shoot, and he aimed his rifle at a bird in a magnificent tree in the garden. To the surprise of those present, his aim was true, and the bird fell to the ground. The five-year-old son of Arthur Goldreich, another key organizer in the anti-apartheid movement, voiced his unhappiness: Why had the bird been killed? Would the bird’s parents not be sad? Mandela later recalled that this five-year-old boy taught him a profound lesson about the value of life, and how one must think deeply about the implications of taking the life of another. This compassion and restraint went on to characterize the ANC’s struggle for liberation, unlike many other liberation movements.
Nelson Mandela was not a pacifist, but he was a peacemaker. One of his greatest contribution was undoubtedly in the early-1990s transition period, when violence was escalating and a democratic outcome was by no means certain. The April 1994 elections occurred in South Africa against a backdrop of international violence, including the Rwandan genocide, in which hundreds of thousands were murdered; the Sudan civil war, which would claim more than two million lives; and the escalation of the second intifada in Palestine. In South Africa, 25,000 people died as a result of political violence, but is almost certain that if not for Mandela’s leadership, the death toll would have been far higher.
There is a song that is sung by South Africans about Madiba, the clan name of Mandela, by which he is is popularly known. The song, which is sung in isiXhosa, translates to the simple English phrase “There is nobody else like him.” A challenge was posed to me by a friend: If Nelson Mandela embodies all the qualities we look for in a leader – integrity, compassion, courage, humility among among many others – why is there nobody else like him? Why do so few other leaders embody these qualities?
The answer to this question is not easy to find. For the moment, we just have to appreciate how fortunate we in South Africa are to have had such an extraordinary person lead and unite us.
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Thank you so much for this! It seems to me like we should be careful, though, about emphasizing Mandela’s role as peacemaker if it is at the expense of his militancy (which I don’t assume you mean to do). To that point, there’s a blog post by Musa Okwonga that has been spreading around a lot today, “Mandela will never, ever be your minstrel.”:
When she called him a peacemaker, I think Janet was referring to Mandela’s role right after the end of Apartheid and during the transition period (she mentions 1994 elections and violence that accompanied it).
Coming from former Yugoslavia, a country in which collapse of a decade old rigid system was not followed by democracy but a civil war and destruction, I totally understand what she means when she says how fortunate they were to have him as a leader.
For the month of December, in honor of Nelson Mandela, the South Africa segment of “A Force More Powerful” has been made available for viewing on the internet. Janet Cherry is seen in this program.
Feel free to share the link. http://vimeo.com/64419607
Thank you, Janet, and please accept condolences from one who is aware of your own sacrifices in the struggle to free your nation and of your love for Mandela.
well, i spent 6 months in south africa in 1986 and 1992, and published two books: the catharsis and the healing: south africa in the 1990s, and two novellas, in one book named Redemption: fir the love of biko and jessica’s choice. it is strange that nobody talks about steve biko, another hero of the fight for independence. they murdered him of course, perhaps because they thought that he was even more dangerous than Mandela, he was an advocate of black consciousness, a true soulmate of Malcolm X, and he would not have made the concessions that Mandela made. Mandela had to make them because he knew that the alternative was civil war, and probably tens of thousands of dead. but when i look at his picture in Cuba with Fidel Castro, you can see where his real heart was. The Freedom Charter was a socialist document. he was a socialist, and he might have suffered to toe the line of corporate capitalism. I am sure he believe he could, should have done more for his people, and his embrace by his former enemies might a left a bitter taste in his mouth.