An extraordinary life, full of inspiration, the media today is wall-to-wall with accolades for Mandela as the world prepares for his funeral. People looking back on a life well lived, picking out his most extraordinary qualities – dignity, humility, compassion, forgiveness, sacrifice and most notably (for it crosses a near-universal taboo) his acceptance of death throughout his life. As Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury said this morning, he redefined what politicians could be about, the way he pulled people together beyond tribalism and interest group politics. But our politicians continue in the gutter of ‘realism’.
The real message that Nelson Mandela lived was not that these qualities were good and moral, but rather that they work. An appeal to the powerful that their approach harms not only the oppressed but their own reputation and relations abroad, and a constant fear of blow-back and violence. An appeal to the oppressed that being driven by hatred exacerbates the violence against them, and very directly deepens their own suffering. This contains a paradox. A big driver for change lies in the fear of violent chaos, yet it is that fear that triggers the violent clamp-down in protection of the status quo. You might say that it was the expectation of violence, coupled with the dignity and forgiveness of the leader of the oppressed, that was so potent in this case.
But we must also not forget the choices of Mandela’s dance partner in change in the early 1990s, F.W. de Klerk. He has as much to teach us, particularly those in power. He stared into the abyss of civil war that everyone predicted, and saw that his position gave him choices that could avoid this disaster. He chose the diplomatic approach, and used his position to frame the critical initial stages transition. He chose the charismatic Mandela as his interlocutor and trusted with him a path that had a higher chance of success in avoiding the chaos.
Mandela was ready for sacrifice, and compromise. As President he allowed the (white and now a little black) propertied classes to retain their wealth, and the corporations their control of the economy, in order to achieve the rainbow nation he spoke of. But he never stopped advocating radical change in the international approach to war and the apartheid of international politics. Those in power expressing such admiration for his approach today would do well to meditate on their apartheid internationally. If we are honest, we will see the parallels in the structure and the oppressive methods used between apartheid South Africa and the international community.
Here in Britain our leaders remain committed to retaining a nuclear deterrent on the basis of some theoretical threat that could emerge in the distant future, whilst we (rightly) deny any such ‘protection’ to other states in far greater security chaos. We seem good at seeing the dangers that others cause, or the injustice perpetrated within a domestic racist apartheid system (particularly in hindsight), but fail to notice the traps we ourselves are in. We believe that the possession of nuclear weapons remains a core security blanket, a sovereign right and a symbol of our status in the world. But these are weapons of a past age, born of an imperialist approach. Nuclear apartheid is taken equally strongly elsewhere as a symbol of unfairness and a willingness ultimately of the powerful and the ‘civilised’ to unleash terrifying destruction on others who may challenge the global order. When will we find it in ourselves, at this time of extraordinary stability for the United Kingdom, able to learn the lessons from Mandela and de Klerk?