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India Must Learn From Mandela's Idea of Peace Through Reconciliation

Though he founded the armed wing of the African Nationalist Congress, Mandela adopted a different ideal for tackling historical injustices at the time of his release. He realised that peace and reconciliation were essential preconditions of democracy.
Graffiti of Nelson Mandela with a quote that is frequently misattributed to him. Photo: Brainbitch/Flickr CC BY NC 2.0

“Each new morn,” says Macduff of war in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, “New widows howl, new orphans cry, new sorrows Strike heaven in the fact, that It resounds.” Today in India, from all sides of the country, the latest being Manipur and Haryana, armed groups bludgeon ‘imagined enemies’ into oblivion. They care a damn that every morning new sorrows strike Indians in the face. We bear witness to bloodletting, to rapes, and to the terrible spectacle of mobs stripping women of their dignity and bodily integrity. We see in despair blood-spattered desolate regions of the country. How much blood is going to be spilt on the streets of the country? What has happened to us as a people: “Yeh kahan aa gaye hum, yuhi saath chalte chalte?” 

This is not to suggest that India is a stranger to communal and caste violence. Ahmedabad (1969), Belchi (1978), Delhi (1984) Bombay (1993), Bathan Tola (1996), Laxman Bathe (1997), Gujarat (2002), Kherlainji (2000), Dharampuri (2012) and Muzzafarnagar (2013) are not only names on India’s maps, they tell stories of shameful incidents in our postcolonial history, of inhuman acts performed by one human being on another for reasons outside the latter’s control, birth into a religious or caste group that has been stereotyped as the enemy or as inferior.

Today, violence has become part of the political process. It plays itself out in tragic ways, sometimes as individual acts of cold-blooded murder, sometimes as despicable collective acts performed on the bodies of minorities, sometimes as hate speech that encourages listeners to kill, loot, and rape, sometimes as justification of harm done to our body politic, and almost always as silence by people who can make a difference. One statement by a charismatic political figure who says firmly, “Enough, no more bloodshed,” can end this terrible cycle of violence. After all, such statements have succeeded in ending violence in history, at least for long periods. 

Several shanties have been vacated by Muslims in the Nuh region over the last week because of rioting. Photo: Tarushi Aswani

Mandela: Peace as reconciliation

The example of Nelson Mandela comes to mind. As the date of his release after 27 years in the inhuman prison system of Apartheid South Africa came nearer, Mandela was beset with considerable doubt. After he had been jailed in 1962, South Africa had been trapped in a whirlwind of violence. Mandela knew that the moment of his release would signify the readiness of the Apartheid regime to transfer power to the majority and that this would unleash another round of violence. The recognition changed his attitude towards politics. From a man who had founded the militant organisation uMkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), the armed wing of the African Nationalist Congress (ANC), Mandela adopted the ideal of peace through reconciliation. He realised that peace and reconciliation were essential preconditions of democracy. Lesser men might have advocated that Black South Africans were now in a position to wreak vengeance on the White community for historical injustice. Not Mandela. 

On February 11, 1990, Mandela walked out of prison. The road from his prison to his home was lined with a boundless sea of people, cheering, holding flags and banners, clapping, dancing and laughing. Addressing enthusiastic crowds, he said, “Friends, comrades and fellow South Africans, I greet you all in the name of peace, democracy and freedom for all!”

Freedom for all was to become his mantra for a democratic and inclusive country.

The statement was an indication of his path to an inclusive democracy. The question that occupied him was similar to the one India confronts. How do we live out our lives with those that ruled us, sometimes, unjustly in the past? Do we exact vengeance, and get caught up in an endless spiral of revenge? Or do we learn to accept history and focus on moving together towards an inclusive democracy? 

At a press conference held after his release, Mandela gave us the answer to these questions. His formulation resonated with generosity, forethought and cool, sane politics. He did not want the White community to be driven away, this would devastate the country. Whites, he said, were fellow South Africans and anyone who abandoned Apartheid had a place in a democratic South Africa. Black Africans had to learn to live with their erstwhile oppressors. Whites had to give up the dream, espoused by many, that they are given a separate state. Mandela was prescient. Secession or partition of territory is a relatively easy option. What is more difficult is to encourage people to give up violence and learn to live together. 

Towards this end, Mandela believed – as Frantz Fanon had theorised earlier – that violence destroys both the victim and the perpetrator. He knew that for democracy to succeed, both the oppressor and the oppressed had to be liberated from the chains that violence had bound them with. In 1994, he said:

“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…The oppressor and the oppressed alike are robbed of their humanity.” 

His subsequent speeches also taught us that the problems of the human condition cannot be resolved in one go. These problems, as well as new ones, are bound to be produced and reproduced. Politics offers no resolutions. All it can do is resolve dilemmas – given imagination, generosity, patience, resourcefulness and courage. Violence, on the other hand, proliferates like the proverbial amoeba. It gives us nothing but death and destruction. Violence is barren; it can only produce arid landscapes of human suffering.

The second lesson Mandela taught us is that the human condition is frail and ambiguous. No one is perfect, all human beings are flawed. We are as flawed as the people we inflict violence on. That is why he forgave his jailors. He believed that people often act violently because they are unthinkingly imbricated in ideologies that are far removed from humanity. Though his jailors in the three jails he had been imprisoned in were Afrikaaners, Mandela recognised that their sensibilities of “other” human beings are shaped by ideologies of hatred that legitimise state power. He in effect reiterated a well-known axiom of political science. The state of politics in a society depends upon the politics of the state.

The only way in which these flaws can be remedied is by compassion. Leaders who set agendas have to transcend petty vindictiveness. They have to abandon the conviction that the past is so important that it has to shape our present or encourage people to do so. We have to come to terms with history, not replicate it. Mandela stood out among his contemporaries because he reversed the principle of justice established by the Nuremberg trials: that a just order is based on the principles of a “tooth for a tooth and an eye for an eye”. He did not believe in victor’s justice, he believed that people can only come to terms with history through compassion, forgiveness and empathy inspired by leaders. 

Also Read: Why India Needs a Truth and Reconciliation Commission

The practice of reconciliation

In 1994, for the first time in the history of South Africa, all races voted in the general elections. The turnout was massive and the ANC won 62% of the seats. Mandela was elected president and he proceeded to establish a multi-cultural cabinet. The last head of state of the apartheid regime, Frederik Willem de Klerk, was appointed as one of the many deputy presidents. The new president of South Africa began to walk the path of reconciliation, from fashioning a new anthem as an amalgam of the old and the new to forging a multi-racial team for the Rugby World Cup finals held in the country in 1995. 

F.W. de Klerk and Nelson Mandela. Photo: World Economic Forum/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 2.0

This initiative was wonderfully captured by the movie Invictus directed by Clint Eastwood with Morgan Freeman playing Mandela, and Matt Damon as the white captain of the rugby team, Francois Pienaar. When the South African team won, people erupted in joy. The white singer P.J. Powers wrote lyrics that resounded with the official slogan:

‘One team, one country/ Gathering together/One mind, one heart/Every creed, every colour /Once joined, never apart.’

Mandela is remembered for three marvellous speeches that resonated with his conviction that reconciliation was the only route to peace. On his release, he promised all inhabitants equality of opportunity. The second speech was given when one of the most loved leaders of the ANC, Chris Hani, was murdered by a white Polish racist Janusz Waluś on April 10, 1995. The country could have been destroyed by racial violence. But when Mandela spoke on South Africa Broadcasting Corporation television, he changed the narrative. “A white man full of prejudice and hate, came to our country and committed a deed so foul that our whole nation now teeters on the brink of disaster. A white woman of Afrikaner origin risked her life so that we may know and bring to justice, this assassin.” 

Human nature, Mandela taught us, cannot be essentialised in terms of race. All races grieved when Hani was murdered. It is this unifying sentiment that constitutes a common humanity and common ends, particularly the end to unite against the forces of hatred. This, he said in his speech, is a watershed moment for us, and our decisions and actions will determine whether we can move together to elect a democratic government. “We must not let the men who worship war, and who lust after blood, precipitate actions that will plunge our country into another Angola.”   

Mandela was committed to the project of unearthing not differences but commonalities between people, and to the project of inspiring them to accept history and move forward. When he won the 1995 election, he made another inspiring speech: “I stand before you filled with deep pride and joy…It is not the individuals that matter, but the collective… This is the time to heal new wounds and build a new South Africa.” The notion of peace through reconciliation was institutionalised in the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It may not have achieved much in the way of remedial justice, but it did manage to make people come to terms with the history of oppression. 

Also Read: Remembering Nelson Mandela, Who Honoured the Power of Reconciliation

Coming to terms with the past

What does it mean, asks Michael Ignatieff, for a nation to come to terms with its past? “Can a nation’s past make people ill as we know repressed memories sometimes make individuals ill. Conversely, can a nation or contending parts of it be reconciled to its past as individuals can, by replacing myth with fact and lies with truth?” Can nations ‘come awake’ from the nightmare of the past?

From Plato to John Rawls, political theory has been concerned with creating a perfectly just society. Today, the agenda of political theorists has been curtailed by another, more urgent, question. How do societies come to terms with their history of conflict? How do people learn to live together? As a start, the past, howsoever harrowing it may be, cannot be forgotten or set aside. We must know which valley we have walked through, which mountains we have climbed, which thicket we have cleared, which paths have we traversed, and what confronted us on the way. Forgetting is not an option if we have to make sense of our present. We have to recognise that traumas that have been suppressed will re-emerge in destructive ways. Societies that cannot come to terms with the past are fragile. They can burst asunder at the slightest pretext. A mere spark is enough to set off a conflagration.  

But we must learn from history – not replicate historical injustice. Witness the tragedy of India’s political life. If past rulers of India broke temples, today we bring down mosques. What have we learned from history? History is our guide to the past and to the future, but we cannot be held captive to its ruthless dynamics. Historical memories have to teach us wisdom not inspire us to loot, burn, and kill. We have to come to terms with history, with the realisation that terrible things were done by people to other people, and pledge that we will not reproduce historical harm. 

Therefore, we cannot hold our own people responsible for what rulers, who happened to belong to their religion, did in the past. We, taking inspiration from leaders who were larger than others, as Mandela was, have to learn compassion, we must approach collective life with a spirit of generosity and kindness. In turn, leaders who rule must recognise their obligation to inspire societies to come to terms with a troubled past not play it up. They have to set an example. It is precisely here that reconciliation makes its appearance. It may not be the perfect solution but it might just change our attitude to the past.

Finally, we have to learn from Mandela that peace is not the containment of conflict alone. It comes through reconciliation, through abjuring the notion of victor’s justice, and through compassion. This is important because no society is free of violence. The beast lurks on the sidelines, waiting for a chance to enter and wreck the lives of our people. Statesmen know how to contain the beast and keep it at the boundaries of society. Will politicians learn?

Neera Chandhoke was a professor of political science at Delhi University.

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