Nelson was born on July 18th, 1918, and lived through South Africa’s turbulent times before his death, aged 95, in 2013. At first engaging in non-violent protest against apartheid as a member of the South African Communist Party, he later co-founded a militant group and led a sabotage campaign, for which he was arrested, convicted, and sentenced to life imprisonment.
His 27 years in prison changed him, and when President F W de Klerk released him in 1990, he worked with de Klerk to bring about reconciliation and a peaceful ending of apartheid. The two were jointly awarded the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts. After the 1994 multiracial general election, Mandela became President and head of state, with de Klerk as one of his Deputy Presidents.
Mandela, as President, embarked on a programme to dismantle the legacy of apartheid, to end institutional racism, and to promote reconciliation between South Africa’s varied ethnic groups. One of the high moments of that campaign was his appearance at the 1995 Rugby World Cup final held in South Africa. Rugby in South Africa was traditionally a game played and enjoyed by whites, and disliked by its black people. Mandela encouraged blacks to rally behind the Springboks, attended the final himself, and wore a Springbok shirt when he walked out to present the trophy to the victors. The gesture hugely endeared him to South Africa’s white population.
His most brilliant move was to form and oversee the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to look into crimes committed on both sides during the apartheid years. People who testified honestly about what they had done and witnessed were granted amnesty. In place of tit-for-tat revenge seeking, with the victims seeking punishment for their aggressors, South Africa settled for letting the truth come out and giving people a sense of closure by letting the world know what had been done. It met from 1996-1998, exposing the bombings, torture and murders of those nightmare years. No-one was punished, and the nation was able to put those dark times behind it and look to its future.
It was a unique innovation, and one that has inspired other nations to put years of oppression, terrorism and civil wars behind them. The Northern Ireland Good Friday Agreement used similar principles to bar prosecution of terrorists, and while it has yet to offer similar protection to British troops who might have broken the law at the time, it may yet do so.
If some of the South American and other countries that have seen atrocities committed under dictatorships, were to use Mandela’s principles to reveal what took place without seeking “justice” by punishing those responsible, they might achieve the reconciliation that enables them to look forward.
Mandela made a lasting contribution to peace, and after he retired as President in 1999, he devoted himself to fighting poverty and HIV/AIDS through the charitable foundation that bears his name. Someone who had been a terrorist transformed himself into an elder statesman who became the father of his nation, and one of the most saintly figures of his century.