Editorial: Remembering Mandela, and how he saved South Africa—and himself

The man who rejected the inevitability of violence
People sing and dance in heavy rain while waiting for the start of the official memorial service for late South African President Nelson Mandela at the First National Bank stadium, also known as Soccer City, in Johannesburg December 10, 2013. REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach (SOUTH AFRICA - Tags: POLITICS OBITUARY) - RTX16BX3
Kai Pfaffenbach/Reuters

The history of South Africa is steeped in bloodshed.

From the first landings of European explorers in 1488, the country has been shaped by almost continuous warfare. In the 19th century alone, there were nine Cape Frontier wars and numerous other smaller conflicts between white settlers and existing tribes, plus the famous Anglo-Zulu war of 1879 and two Boer wars between Afrikaners and British colonials. In the 20th century—both before and after the imposition of apartheid in 1948—frequent clashes between black protesters and white rulers left scores dead in places like Port Elizabeth, Bulhoek and Sharpeville. And during the final years of apartheid, conflict between competing black political and tribal factions led to rampant street fighting and such atrocities as necklacing—the burning of a gasoline-filled tire around a victim’s neck to produce an excruciating death. Violence has always been the preferred solution to South Africa’s problems.

This is significant, because it is only when set against the centuries-long backdrop of interracial violence that Nelson Mandela and his personal and public achievements can be fully appreciated.

The legacy of Mandela, who died last week at age 95, has been universally proclaimed as one of peace, reconciliation and forgiveness. All this is entirely true. It is also true, however, that he was not always so peaceful. And that’s the truly remarkable part of his story.

The African National Congress (ANC), the party Mandela headed when apartheid was finally dismantled, began as a non-violent political movement. As a young lawyer, Mandela was an active supporter of the ANC’s peaceful stance. But, by 1961, he’d become frustrated. To force change, he convinced the group to set up an armed wing called uMkonto weSizwe (Spear of the nation) with himself at the head.

Throughout the early 1960s, Mandela masterminded bombing campaigns against government buildings and criss-crossed Africa, learning the techniques of modern terrorism. His elusiveness earned him the nickname “the Black Pimpernel” from the South African media. At this point, Mandela became a predictable part of South African history. As he explained at the time: “Violence in this country was inevitable, it would be unrealistic and wrong for African leaders to continue preaching peace and non-violence.”

Mandela was finally captured and put on trial for treason and sentenced to life imprisonment; he could have spent the rest of his days plotting revenge on a brutal government. The great and remarkable thing is that he did not.

When he finally emerged from the prison system 27 years later, he firmly rejected the inevitability of centuries of South African bloodshed. “Friends, comrades and fellow South Africans,” he said upon his release in 1990, “I greet you all in the name of peace, democracy and freedom for all.”

It is a trap of history to consider all great men and women to have been born exactly so. It was in prison that Mandela came to reject the inevitability of violence. And, in doing so, he fundamentally altered centuries of history.

How did he manage such a transformation? He first learned to manage his own fiery impulses. According to author Richard Stengel, who collaborated with Mandela on his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom, when Mandela entered prison, he was “not in control of his emotions. The man who came out was in very rigorous control of his passions and his emotions. People say Mandela’s not bitter; he’s terribly bitter, but he’s learned to control it.”

Mandela also recognized and responded to his former enemy’s efforts at a peaceful transition of power. Once years of international boycotts and domestic protests and crackdowns forced South African president F.W. de Klerk to negotiate, Mandela worked tirelessly to avoid the civil war he’d previously tried to encourage. He changed so his country could, too. Later, his innovation of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission cleansed the country of the legacy of apartheid and became a model for the rest of the world, including Canada.

There are still tremendous challenges facing South Africa, in particular, public safety and government corruption. And the end of apartheid has not yet delivered millions of South Africans from poverty or despair. Yet the fact the country broke with centuries of bloodshed to end apartheid without civil war stands as a monumental achievement by one man.

Nelson Mandela saved his country from its own bloody history, and left the rest of the world with an unforgettable lesson in grace and transformation.