Remembering Nelson Mandela on the first anniversary of his death: wisdom for peace

Vaughn John

University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa
(Featured article: Issue #116 December 2014)

I write this piece as we approach the first anniversary of the death of Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s first democratic president. Madiba, as he was affectionately known, died on 5 December 2013, at the age of 95. He will be remembered for many contributions by people across the globe. Readers of this newsletter will remember Mandela as apartheid South Africa’s prisoner of 27 years and later a Nobel Peace prize winner. I want to use this opportunity to reflect on and remember some of Mandela’s contributions to peace building. What legacy has Madiba left for our community of peace educators? What wisdom can we draw on from the life and works of Nelson Mandela as we face the challenges of violence and inequality at this time? These are the questions I wish to address in this article.

At the International Peace Research Association’s (IPRA) 25th annual conference in August this year, I delivered a paper entitled: “On unity, peace and values: the wisdom of Nelson Mandela,” which I draw on in this article. In my presentation, I included these pictures taken at the Mandela capture site, the place Mandela was arrested prior to his long imprisonment. This site is just some 23 kilometers from my home.

Mandela Capture Site

The site has a sculpture of Mandela made up from 50 separate pieces of metal as shown in the picture above. It is an amazing sculpture because the viewer is actively involved in the “making of Mandela”. This requires the viewer to adopt the ideal position in order to allow a process of connections to happen, to let separate, jagged pieces to blend into a whole and to let the beautiful image of Mandela emerge. A further symbolism in this viewing of Mandela is that his image is made up by the background or context surrounding these metal pieces. So one’s perspective of Mandela at this site is dependent on connections allowed from adopting a position and on seeing in context. I believe these three factors, namely, connecting, perspective and context, also apply to how we may view and remember Nelson Mandela as a source of peace wisdom.

I have chosen five lessons from the life and works of Mandela which form part of his wisdom for peace, all dealing with a type of connecting, and all illustrated by different quotes from Mandela’s many public addresses and his biography, Long Walk to Freedom. But before we look at these, it is first necessary to deal with the multiple perspectives of Mandela. His life journey, depending on your standpoint, could be described as “From terrorist to Nobel Peace laureate”. Mandela never shied away from this and wrote:

“I was called a terrorist yesterday, but when I came out of jail, many people embraced me, including my enemies, and that is what I normally tell other people who say those who are struggling for liberation in their country are terrorists. I tell them that I was also a terrorist yesterday, but, today, I am admired by the very people who said I was one.”

1. Connecting with your enemy
The first lesson emerging from the above quotation relates to how Mandela chose to deal with his enemy, who had imprisoned him for 27 years. This is one of his most profound contributions to peace building. His advice here is:

“If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he [she] becomes your partner.” ‘

2. Connecting with the past
Closely tied to the first lesson, is Mandela’s advice on dealing with the past. On leaving office as president on 15 June 1999, he said:

“South Africans must recall the terrible past so that we can deal with it, forgiving where forgiveness is necessary but never forgetting.”

This is a form of critical remembrance, a way of looking back so that one can move forward; a vital part of peacebuilding.

3. Connecting inner and outer peace
A central lesson exemplified in the actions of Mandela is the importance of achieving a balance between personal peace and public peace. Mandela was better known for the latter, but his abilities to be a peace-maker and peace-builder in South Africa and the world required that he develop inner peace. In this regard historian Sarah Nuttall (2014) notes:

“… while Mandela has long been seen as a man of action … there is much in his life and thinking that invites conversation in relation to the projects of inner liberation and human emancipation undertaken by figures like Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Ang San Suu Kyi …”

This ability is perhaps best expressed by Mandela himself when he said:

“As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.

And this is perhaps a key inspiration for peace educators as we deal with bitter knowledge:

“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

4. Connected freedoms and humanity
An important lesson and a personal stance which I respect Mandela for, relates to the connections he forged between his freedom and his peoples’ freedom and the freedom of everyone. He made many statements on this:

“A man who takes away another man’s freedom is a prisoner of hatred, he is locked behind the bars of prejudice and narrow-mindedness. I am not truly free if I am taking away someone else’s freedom, just as surely as I am not free when my freedom is taken from me. The oppressed and the oppressor alike are robbed of their humanity… For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.

We know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians; without the resolution of conflicts in East Timor, the Sudan and other parts of the world.”

These views on freedom and humanity reflect Mandela’s brand of African humanism and firm belief in the interconnectedness and interdependence of all people as expressed in African languages as a form of ‘humanness’ through concepts such as Ubuntu (Zulu) and Botho (Sotho). Despite critique that these concepts may be outdated and relate to obsolete communitarian societies, I believe they are relevant today and of high peace value.

5. Connecting different forms of violence … remembering structural violence
So much of our efforts as peace workers focus on physical and direct violence. Mandela reminds us to not forget our culpability and responsibility related to poverty as another form of violence:

“Overcoming poverty is not a task of charity, it is an act of justice. Like Slavery and Apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings. Sometimes it falls on a generation to be great. YOU can be that great generation. Let your greatness blossom.”

In concluding, I’d like to draw on some writing close to home which is apposite to my reflections here. It is an example of how young South Africans are drawing on the wisdom of Madiba. My daughter Talia recently delivered a speech at her final high school awards day. In reminding her fellow classmates about the journey completed and the new journeys ahead she cited a passage from Mandela’s biography. She said:

“We are fortunate in that, as the Born Free generation, we are blessed with the wisdom of an incredible leader, a person whose life also epitomized our 2014 motto: Learn. Love. Lead. So let these words from Tata Madiba (may his soul rest in peace) guide you on your journey:

‘I have walked that long road to freedom. I have tried not to falter; I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. I have taken a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come. But I can rest only for a moment, for with freedom comes responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not yet ended.’

As we remember Mandela a year after his passing, I believe these words are most apt for our community of peace educators too … we have made some progress but a long walk still beckons. Mandela encourages us on this walk when he said:

“The world remains beset by so much human suffering, poverty and deprivation. It is in your hands to make of our world a better one for all.”


Vaughn John (PhD) teaches Peace Education and Conflict Resolution at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. He is the co-convener of the Peace Education Commission of the International Peace Research Association (IPRA). He can be reached at: [email protected]


Be the first to comment

Join the discussion...