Lighting candles amid the growing memorial of flowers outside South Africa House on London’s Trafalgar Square last Friday evening, I thought about some of the day’s news coverage. I recalled Barack Obama’s anecdote that Mandela once disavowed praise in typically humble and self-deprecating fashion: “I’m not a saint unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.” It reminded me of a comment someone once made of praise I’d given someone else I deeply admired and respected, for –among other qualities–their example of humility and forgiveness: “It’s easy to be humble when you’re a guru”, they’d said. But Mandela wasn’t always a guru or a saint. Before Mandela the reconciler, peacemaker, and unifier, there was Mandela the lawyer, intellectual, and freedom fighter.

I thought of Oliver Tambo, the ANC president who escaped South Africa after the ANC was banned in 1960 and who regularly addressed anti-apartheid gatherings on Trafalgar Square throughout the three decades of his exile. Tambo had, along with Mandela, Ashley Mda, Anton Lembede and Walter Sisulu, been a founding member of the ANC Youth League in 1944. Mentored by Lembede (who would die unexpectedly in 1947), the Young Lions were staunch nationalists, and the ANCYL’s founding manifesto outlined a strident critique of the failings of the parent organisation in which promoting “African self-determination” became the organising principle of resistance to (white) government oppression.

Amid all the sadness and celebration of an accomplished life so fully lived, it’s easy to forget that the leadership, humility, forgiveness and reconciliation for which Mandela is celebrated began with a withering analysis of white supremacy and how to defeat it. That analysis evolved with time as Mandela’s thinking developed from his Youth League days through his experiences of debating with his ANC comrades, arguing and eventually forging alliances with communists, many of whom were white, with activists from the Indian community, particularly in and around the metropolitan centres of Durban and Johannesburg, and with the women’s movement whose 20,000-strong march on Pretoria’s Union Buildings in August 1956 showed that they too were a force to be reckoned with. It received its most eloquent, forthright, and forceful iteration in June 1964 when Mandela addressed the trial court at the opening of his defence against charges of treason. Mandela was unequivocal:

The lack of human dignity experienced by Africans is the direct result of the policy of white supremacy. White supremacy implies black inferiority. Legislation designed to preserve white supremacy entrenches this notion. Menial tasks in South Africa are invariably performed by Africans. When anything has to be carried or cleaned the white man will look around for an African to do it for him, whether the African is employed by him or not. Because of this sort of attitude, whites tend to regard Africans as a separate breed. They do not look upon them as people with families of their own; they do not realize that they have emotions – that they fall in love like white people do; that they want to be with their wives and children like white people want to be with theirs; that they want to earn enough money to support their families properly, to feed and clothe them and send them to school. And what ‘house-boy’ or ‘garden-boy’ or labourer can ever hope to do this?

Madiba’s example of forgiveness, reconciliation, and humility are inseparable from his unwavering commitment to combat white supremacy, and promote equality and justice. That commitment, conveyed in his leadership, provided a beacon to the negotiations to replace apartheid with democracy. We saw it flash bright at CODESA after De Klerk used his closing remarks on the opening day of the CODESA negotiations to complain that the ANC had not abandoned its armed struggle, even as the parties were now gathered around the negotiating table. Mandela had already given his closing remarks and De Klerk was to have been the last speaker of the day. But an incensed Mandela insisted on returning to the podium where he castigated De Klerk so vehemently that two decades later De Klerk is still licking his wounds: “Even the head of an illegitimate, discredited, minority regime as his, has certain moral standards to uphold … he has abused his position because he hoped that I would not reply. He was completely mistaken.” Mandela went on to remind the audience that the armed struggle was suspended to give negotiations a chance and that it was one of the agenda points for the negotiations begun that day.

Those negotiations would ultimately fail and violence would flare across the country for another 18 months before parties returned to the table, an agreement reached in late 1993 and an interim constitution adopted.

In the early 1990s, reports emerged that the ANC had tortured and abused detainees in its military camps in the frontline states. Although these rumours had circulated before, the South African establishment media seized on them to portray the ANC as no better than the regime’s torturers and assassins, or even worse than the regime because the ANC, unlike the regime, held itself to higher standards of human rights. The ANC ordered an inquiry and when the Motsuenyane Commission duly reported to the ANC National Executive, the committee chaired by Mandela was deeply divided. The Commission found that detainees had been badly abused, with incidents reported in several camps over several years. Some argued vociferously that the report should be made public; the ANC should come clean and acknowledge its failings to protect its moral standing. Others sensed the danger and argued equally forcefully that releasing the report would severely compromise the ANC’s position at the negotiating table because De Klerk’s National Party and several other parties too would seize on it to discredit the ANC. They argued that the ANC should not permit a circumstance where abuses in camps could be equated to what the National Party had inflicted on South Africa for decades.

The debate went on for hours until Kader Asmal stood up and proposed a compromise: South Africa should have a truth commission in which the full extent of crimes perpetrated by all parties to the South African conflict would be revealed. A human rights lawyer by training and member of the ANC’s Constitutional Committee, Asmal was a founding member of first the British and then the Irish Anti-Apartheid Movements. He had spent three decades exiled in Ireland where he eventually became a professor of human rights law at Trinity College, Dublin. Asmal argued that declaring human rights abuses by ANC agents was necessary to preserve the ANC’s human rights mantle, and that simultaneously compelling the regime to do the same would demonstrate in the fullest possible manner the criminality of apartheid white supremacy. The ANC’s crimes were in no way equivalent to the regimes’ (although the TRC would later take issue with that claim) and the ANC’s historical argument, which Mandela also outlined in his statement from the dock, would hold: white supremacy was the root cause of violence in South Africa, was by definition a profound violence against human dignity and worth. Asmal’s proposal found backers and ultimately became the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Albie Sachs, who told me this account and which I have corroborated with another NEC member present, did not say where Mandela stood during the fractious NEC debate about Motsuenyane’s report. However, that Asmal’s proposal was accepted and a post-amble hastily added to the 1993 constitution suggests he was persuaded by the proposal’s ability to reweave principle and politics when the two seemed in danger of coming undone.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, as it became known when enabling legislation was finally adopted in 1995, is one of the most celebrated accomplishments of South Africa’s political transition and set a new standard for restorative justice the world over. But the TRC was not only an innovative mechanism to promote reconciliation, it was the seal on the peace that finally ended white supremacy in South Africa (at least in its legislated and institutionalized form).

Which returns me to my point. Mandela the forgiver, reconciler and peacemaker tells us a comforting and warming story about a champion of racial equality and justice. But that is only half the story. The other half is a story about Mandela the astute leader whose actions and decisions are grounded by a profound commitment to democracy, social harmony and equal opportunities. As he famously told his trial, “It 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.” The world is thankful that he lived. But we should not underestimate the strength of that conviction nor the awesome potential of anyone innervated by it. That for me is Madiba’s legacy and the profound example we celebrate today.

Further Reading