Almost without exception, the entire civilised world came to a standstill on the sudden, but not unexpected death of Nelson Mandela. Only one nation failed to express any condolence and its prime minister, for security reasons, did not see fit to attend the formal service. But most people, through the developed and developing world, paid homage to the former South African president and US president, Barack Obama, used his full oratorical skills to remind us why Mr Mandela was seen as such a great man. Most emphasis was on has almost Biblical sense of forgiveness, a moral act that compares with any other person throughout human history. How could he, after 27 years of incarceration by one of the most savage regimes the world has ever seen, find it in his heart to forgive his oppressors? That he did so showed how he dug in to the recesses of his soul to find that kindness, courage, the ability to turn the other cheek, that this we all, black and white, rich and poor, old and young, are now agreed was exceptional.
But Mr Mandela was more than the forgiving angel, which undoubtedly he was; he was also someone with a deep respect for all he encountered, as we are told; he had humility and humour, understanding and foresight, and, of course, an ability to forgive which gave him that special public moral authority. But questions remain: moral duty often involves conflicting moral pressures: is forgiveness superior to justice?
Most of all, however, Mr Mandela was a model of how public servants should behave, of a standard of public integrity that almost no African or Caribbean state has embedded in its governance. And it is this public integrity, this impeccable behaviour, that will become his historical legacy, a roadmap for all aspiring young public servants, professional and elected, to emulate. Above all, Mr Mandela has set a benchmark for the morality of politics in developing nations, of the supremacy of the collective above the individual, of focusing on the bigger picture and ignoring the spiritual poison of anger and bitterness. He has re-written the standard work on the politics of sharing and giving, of serving one’s people, of putting others before self.
However, Mr Mandela’s principal legacy in the short-term, his forgiveness, in the cold light of day may not be as powerful and lasting as many suggest. For there is a broader morality of forgiveness which cannot be forgotten that easily.
Did he have the moral right to be so forgiving for the injury and hurt, the brutality and naked violence inflicted on millions of people across generations?
Was it part of his remit to forgive the oppressor on behalf of his people without any expressed or implicit authority?
We can, and should, measure Mr Mandela against post-war African freedom fighters, both before and during his involvement: the Mau-Mau in Kenya, Robert Mugabe and Nkomo in Zimbabwe, of Kenneth Kaunda in Zambia, of those fighting in Angola, Mozambique and other places. How does he measure up?
The brutality of colonial forces in Kenya was singularly savage; support for Ian Smith, Pik Botha and Verwoerd, in Southern Rhodesia and South Africa respectively, carried on in to the 1980s. Are these acts of wild violence and debilitating inequality acts that a single person, whoever he or she is, can forgive on behalf of a wronged people?
It is often implied that the trade-off for Mr Mandela’s forgiveness was social peace, if so at what price? The core of the fight against apartheid was equality of opportunity for all, education, jobs, health and housing. Post-apartheid, economic power remains in the hands of the same people who held power during the dark years. In the period leading up to the first democratic general election in South Africa, when it was clear that one person, one vote will return a ANC government, a number of world-class, South Africa-domiciled financial institutions gradually shifted their headquarters to Europe. Their operations in South Africa became mere subsidiaries or branches, while their leading executives re-located in Britain or the Channel Islands. We can also be sure that a number of wealthy and mass affluent people also shifted their wealth out of South Africa, to New Zealand, Australia, Britain and elsewhere. It is still not clear what the total shift of capital out of the country has been valued at, but it is fair to suggest it was very substantial.
The miners at Marikana who were brutally shot by police, black and white, could not care less if that brutality was under apartheid or democracy. All that mattered was that 34 people were murdered while protesting for their rights as workers. Middle class professionals and university students are becoming increasingly hostile to the ANC, the country is caught up in the global economic struggle and, like the world over, the Chinese have moved in in a big way. But there are other questions to be asked: what happened to South Africa’s nuclear capacity on the dawn of the transfer? Can we afford to forget the role of the South African Communist Party, the Pan-African Congress and others, whether negatively or positively?
Analysis and Conclusion:
Nelson Mandela was rightfully celebrated in his death and will no doubt be remembered for decades to come. But, I suggest, his real legacy will not be one of his moral strength of forgiveness – the truth and reconciliation model has been rejected by the Israelis and Palestinians and the IRA and Protestant groups. His real legacy will be that of honesty, integrity in public office, common courtesy, no matter your social status. He brought a morality to politics that is not talked about often enough. These qualities are not insignificant; any of us would be happy to be remembered for any single one. They are the single lessons he has taught the world after his 27 years of incarceration: that there is honour in serving the people, that a person can be measured by his honesty and integrity, that politics does not have to be a dirty word. If for no other reason, we are very lucky to be alive at a time like this when an ordinary man with towering integrity walked amongst us.
We must also reflect on the role of the succeeding generations of ANC apparatchiks, the professional trade unionists and academics who metamorphosed in to multi-millionaire business people. The princes and princesses of the revolution, the sons and daughters of the people who went in to the bush to fight, who believed it was a right that they should inherit the spoils of war. The people who betrayed their parents’ generation. Mr Mandela’s integrity has given way to a generation of corrupt politicians who have abandoned the welfare of the people.
Post-apartheid South Africa is still not the ideal so-called Rainbow nation; there is still a growing disparity between the haves and have-nots, the only change is that there is now a wealthy black middle class, professionals and business people, that increasingly are pulling away from their own people, financially and metaphorically. Whereas under apartheid race and ethnicity were the dividing factors, it is now class and material success.
We must also remember the role of women in the liberation struggle. Winnie Mandela endured 27 years of animal-like behaviour from the authorities while Nelson was in prison. The authorities saw her as a soft target, someone they could break, the weak link. What they got was a determined woman, a warrior, someone prepared to stand up, for herself and for her absent husband and, most of all, for her people. Throughout it all she has remained dignified, despite attempts by the media and informers to smear her. Loyalty and sincerity should be repaid with loyalty and sincerity. She too must be remembered when the annals of this period are written, not just dismissed as the flawed wife as the racist authorities would like history to remember her. Wars of liberation are never won as a one-off, each generation must re-fight those battles, go over the same old debates, negotiate the same old agreements, as previous ones, only these contests get a bit more sophisticated.
When all is said and done, Mr Mandela has taught us that politics too can be a moral force for good. We must work out for ourselves, test the boundaries, of the moral limit to forgiveness.