Mandela's spirit of forgiveness

His legacy is one of great inspiration, not great governance

December 6, 2013 3:15PM ET
In June, supporters of Mandela gathered outside the Mediclinic Heart Hospital in Pretoria, where he was being treated for a lung infection.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Since Nelson Mandela died, a number of people have asserted that his genius saved South Africa from civil war. This is probably true — just not necessarily for the reasons we think. Mandela was neither an original thinker nor an especially good governor. But he managed to redefine what freedom meant to South Africans, and in a way no one else could have.

Mandela did not invent the idea that South Africans ought to reconcile, as Tony Karon has rightly argued. Nine years before Mandela’s birth, in 1909, a delegation of black South Africans set off for London to protest the coming Union of South Africa, in which political representation would be confined to whites. Among them was John Dube, who would become the first president of the African National Congress, the organization Mandela himself would one day lead. Dube and his colleagues had a simple message: We are all the queen’s subjects; we are a part of her Commonwealth; we require political representation, too.

This doctrine never really changed over the ensuing 84 years of white minority rule in South Africa. The ANC’s principle that all South Africans regardless of race should live together peacefully as equal citizens remained constant. Mandela may well have become the most famous proponent of this doctrine, but it preceded him by a long way.

Yet it is one thing to advocate reconciliation, and quite another to get a country to buy into it. It was Mandela’s genius to have done just this in the early 1990s. The country was horribly fragile: Some parts were in a state of civil war. The air was filled with the stench of conspiracy — much of the country believed that the white security forces were secretly stoking the violence. And while nonracialism may have been the ANC’s official doctrine, it was hardly rooted in the experiences of black South Africans. Most black people had suffered daily humiliations at the hands of whites. Most had stalked their own cities like outlaws in fear of the police. The notion that freedom should be coupled with forgiveness hardly made intuitive sense. Forgiveness had to be won, and it could not possibly be won on the rhetorical level of words or ideas. It had to be embodied by somebody who could perform it, and Nelson Mandela was that somebody.

Mandela’s genius was to show that forgiveness was not a magnanimous gesture, or the equivalent of a little loose change dropped into a bucket as an afterthought after freedom is achieved. He showed that a humiliated people might recoup its self-respect by forgiving, that forgiveness is a route to genuine power. It takes an unusual person to live and perform this idea. It could not be done merely by political calculation. A self-doubting person loses himself when he tries to forgive; he burns with humiliation. Mandela could really and truly forgive, without flinching, without losing his honor or his self-respect. And that was his secret.

That’s why so many people today cannot conceive of what it means to be South African without thinking of Mandela. He showed the world that forgiveness conserves the memory of outrage yet releases people from it, that forgiveness could rob white people of the power to determine what black lives meant. He showed, paradoxically, that forgiveness is strong enough to satisfy feelings of vengeance. He did this primarily through the force of his personality, through the spirit he conjured. It is not something one learns. It was him: the right person at the right time.

The politics of transition

That said, Mandela’s ability to transform the society he lived in didn’t make him a brilliant governing leader. His genius was grounded in the politics of transition. He saw the path from apartheid to democracy with such clarity that it was easy for him to navigate it. But he left others to determine how the society he did so much to create might be run.

Today, Mandela’s many admirers complain that the ANC is betraying his legacy. While he was clean, the ANC is now corrupt. While he stepped down after one term and, in doing so, showed in deed what modern constitutional values meant, his successors cling to power greasily. While he believed in equality, those who replaced him have been content to see the poor rot.

None of this is entirely accurate. Mandela had few ideas to begin with about how to govern South Africa. And he was much more tolerant of corruption than it is polite to recall. When he was president, he would sit behind his desk and ring up those in power to build him a clinic here and erect a school there, as though development was a matter of important men exchanging favors. This drove his deputy, Thabo Mbeki, up the wall. Mandela’s way of doing things was haphazard, poorly conceived and so terribly aristocratic.

Nor did he have any great ideas about alleviating poverty. Running a medium-size country with dwindling mineral wealth in an increasingly competitive global economy is no easy business. There are no obvious answers. Finding them was not Mandela’s forte. I suspect that if he had been a little younger and governed for another term, the glow of his halo might have dimmed just a little.

Have his political successors really squandered the inheritance he bequeathed to them? I’m not sure. Since the end of apartheid, the murder rate has been cut almost in half. One in five South Africans lives in a house given to them free by the state. The real income of the lowest two deciles of black families has increased by about a third. And the proportion of South Africans living below the poverty line has dropped from well over 50 percent to 36 percent.

It’s not perfect, but it’s progress. And this is why the ANC still credibly claims Mandela as its own. This is why it keeps winning elections. It will not last forever. One day, the ANC will lose both its claim over Mandela and its electoral dominance. But we are not nearly there yet.

Jonny Steinberg is the author of several books about everyday life in the wake of South Africa's transition to democracy. He teaches African studies at Oxford University.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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