Mandela: A statesman who built a nation on the platform of his character

Nelson Mandela, South Africa's first black president, passed on Thursday, leaving a legacy of moral greatness and unflagging commitment to racial reconciliation.

Denis Farrell/AP/File
Former South African President Nelson Mandela laughs while celebrating his 89th birthday with children at the Nelson Mandela Children's Fund in Johannesburg in July 2007.

With the passing of Nelson Mandela, the African continent has lost its most important elder statesman, and someone whose moral stature and leadership were a powerful mover of history for more than five decades. 

Mr. Mandela's crowning achievement was his ability to steer South Africa through a peaceful transition from apartheid to democracy after 27 years in prison. His ability to do the seemingly impossible for his native country fueled high expectations that he could bring the same transformations to other nations, especially in Africa.
Mandela became a model president for other young nations on the continent, and leaders from across Africa and beyond sought his advice and endorsement long after his retirement. But it is further evidence of his political acumen that he was selective and realistic about his ability to crack longstanding African problems, while concentrating on the stability and unity of his own country, still in its democratic infancy.
“As a moral and spiritual leader, Mandela is unparalleled,” says Kenyan author Billy Kahora, who lived in South Africa from 1997 to 2004. “He showed that as a leader, you must be bigger than yourself.”

Mandela cemented his position as a continent-wide figure in 1962, when he addressed the Pan-African Freedom Movement, a conference of African nationalist leaders. But his subsequent imprisonment meant that his contribution to pan-Africanism and post-colonial transitions was more intellectual and symbolic than that of other leaders, such as President Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana and President Julius Nyerere of Tanzania.

However, as an icon of the struggle for African liberation, Mandela served as a vital and unifying role model across the continent, where leaders vocally supported him during his imprisonment.

“Mandela was a huge symbol to those of us in the Zimbabwean struggle," says Jeremy Brickhill, a former liberation fighter in Zimbabwe. "We were comrades-in-arms, and the ANC [African National Congress] leaders were also our leaders. Mandela in particular symbolized this interdependence and solidarity of the liberation movements.”

Peaceful reconciliation

Despite his role in forming and leading the armed wing of the African National Congress, Mandela proved influential abroad with his commitment to peaceful reconciliation and forgiveness following his release from prison and as South Africa’s first black president, elected in 1994.

“How Mandela conducted himself when we finally had a chance to see him after his release had a great impact on everyone, including us liberation fighters who were so proud that this was the caliber of leadership which our struggles produced," adds Mr. Brickhill. 

Mandela’s Government of National Unity was quick to establish South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission – the first of its kind internationally – which was a body aimed at addressing the violence and human rights abuses perpetrated during the apartheid era and at advancing the cause of reconciliation.

After a decade of fears that major social change could bring violence, the commission intervened as an adjustment mechanism, nationally televised, in which perpetrators of political violence and abuse admitted their acts and often were granted amnesty in return. The body expressed transparency and forgiveness inside a legal framework, in the hopes of moving the nation out of acrimony. 

Truth and reconciliation commissions deployed elsewhere on the continent have had mixed successes, but Piers Pigou, former investigator for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa and now Southern Africa project director for the think tank International Crisis Group, says that Mandela’s reconciliation concept and project remains powerful on the continent.

“The issue, however, is that it is not automatically transferable, especially in the absence of authoritative moral leadership,” Mr. Pigou says.

High expectations

On becoming president, Mandela faced high expectations that he would be able to solve many of Africa’s problems, with Western nations seeking to push South Africa into the role of continental superpower and peacemaker. As well as seeking to redress the destabilizing impact of the apartheid state on neighboring countries, Mandela wrote of his plans for an ambitious foreign policy agenda focused on human rights and democracy. But analysts agree that South Africa’s foreign policy under Mandela was often defined by caution and compromise.

“It wasn’t an activist foreign policy,” says Ogaba Oche, acting director of research at the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs. “The main concern on the part of both Mandela and the ANC was that of reconciliation. They wanted to build good, strong ties with other countries, especially those that had supported the ANC during the apartheid era. Otherwise, the focus was largely on domestic issues.”

One of Mandela’s biggest foreign policy tests came when several Nigerian activists, including the writer Ken Saro-Wiwa, were sentenced to death in a contested trial in 1995. After Mr. Saro-Wiwa’s execution, Mandela quickly called for sanctions against Nigeria’s military regime, but was unable to reach consensus with other African nations. Relations between South Africa and Nigeria – rivals as the continent’s powerhouse economies – deteriorated significantly.

Mandela had some success as an African peacebroker, including in supervising talks between Angola’s President José Eduardo dos Santos and leader of the UNITA rebel movement Jonas Savimbi in 1994. But relations with Zimbabwe, and in particular its president and fellow liberation fighter Robert Mugabe, cooled during Mandela’s presidency. A notable sticking point was over the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1998, to which Mandela sought a diplomatic solution while Mugabe pushed for regional military support to Kabila’s government.
Despite criticisms, Mandela – under immense pressure at home and internationally – did succeed in bringing a human rights dimension to South Africa’s foreign policy in Africa following its highly damaging apartheid-era incarnation. Mandela’s presidency – including his leaving after only one term in office – also offered a moral example to other leaders on the continent.
“Kenya was going through dark times when Mandela was elected president; suddenly he became the president that all African leaders needed to be,” says Mr. Kahora, the Kenyan author.
And as Nigerian writer and Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka once put it: “How many heads of state do we have that voluntarily withdraw from office after one term only? So, on so many levels Mandela is one property Africa has that it can boast about.”

Elder statesman

After leaving office in 1999, and before his retirement from public life in 2004, Mandela took on the role of South Africa’s highest-profile ambassador. He brought his moral weight to bear on the bloody ethnic conflict in Burundi, where he oversaw peace talks, and also called for greater focus on the issue of HIV/AIDS on the continent at a time when members of South Africa’s ruling ANC were flirting with fringe theories about the disease.
With a number of other public figures including his wife, Graça Machel, and former US President Jimmy Carter, Mandela formed The Elders in 2007, an independent group focused on the pursuit of peace and human rights. While he withdrew as an active member of the group, The Elders has sought to intervene in conflicts across the world, including in African nations such as Cote d’Ivoire and Zimbabwe.

Mandela’s engagement in Zimbabwe has also continued beyond his retirement. According to a US diplomatic cable revealed by Wikileaks, he sent a message advising Mugabe to step down as a means of preserving his “liberation war legacy,” but was ridiculed as a “Western puppet.”

Despite impossibly high expectations of his pan-African role, both as a moral leader and as president of South Africa, the late Nelson Mandela made contributions that were significant and diverse in nature.

As Professor Oche puts it: “Under Mandela, we saw South Africa rising on the African continent, but also on the platform of his character. He exercised a lot of moral influence on the rest of Africa – he was an iconic figure.”

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