The right side of history
The world’s favourite Elder Statesman dies. The world’s media are filled with his story, and (for a change) the volume of coverage does seem merited. What can I add to miles of newsprint? Probably nothing meaningful, nor should I try. History is being written, but I am no historian. But there seem to be crucial questions none of the media care about. Can we draw lessons from Mandela’s story for the present and future? Where might the next Mandela come from?
Let’s brush over his achievements. The figurehead for his people’s struggle, and their first black president elected by a process we can recognise as democratic. The achievement that really reflects credit on him is to have brought about that democratic change without a bloodbath, and indeed with an extraordinary level of goodwill that didn’t just evaporate as soon as something got tough.
What’s altogether more interesting is the context. What made Mandela as a great figurehead and eventual president was surely his long imprisonment. Yet he was imprisoned as a terrorist, and that was real. His imprisonment was prolonged by his consistent refusal to renounce violence, and it was former president de Klerk who had the courage to make the first move, and release a man publicly committed to violence against his country. That must have been as unthinkable for some at the time as it would be now to release Michael Adebolajo (having first convicted him) and enter into dialogue with him.
Of course they did release Mandela, he rewarded them by negotiating in good faith, and the rest is a history much happier than those of so many newly-created or liberated countries. Perhaps there was a greater force at work than any individuals: the force of history. For history was firmly on Mandela’s side, and many elements of his story (though not their combined whole, nor I think the happy outcome) were matters of historical inevitability. The force of history is perhaps the most crucial difference between Mandela and his era’s other high-profile leader of an oppressed people, Yasser Arafat, who did renounce the violent struggle and make many other compromises yet never achieved a happy outcome.
Where is today’s Mandela?
If history is to be of use, we need to be able to draw lessons from it. Are there other potential Mandelas out there perhaps ready to step up to the mark and bring other conflicts to a resolution? I don’t see any obvious candidate, but then I wouldn’t expect to. Even if the media and supporters draw the world to a candidate – as they did with Mandela – we would still be faced with a profile of a candidate who could be anything from a great statesman to a complete nutter.
What about de Klerk’s role: the incumbent in power who can seize a moment in history and make that critical first move towards reconciliation with his historic enemy? People in power are easier to see: after all, we’ve heard of them. Those in conflict, fighting terrorists, holding political prisoners, should in principle have a great prize for the taking if they can identify a Mandela amongst their enemies.
Those fighting the so-called War on Terror must be prime candidates, and should be looking hard for their Mandela in Guantanamo Bay and such places of ill-repute. Yet as of now we appear to be firmly in denial: there is no force of history ready to thrust a peace process on us. Perhaps a real candidate for the Mandela role could have been Hakimullah Mehsud, so recently on the point of entering peace talks before someone killed off that process?
When Mandela was tried and imprisoned, he had a public and media spotlight which led eventually to his elevation and his country’s reconciliation. Those who assassinate their enemies, or kidnap and hide them forgotten are denying themselves that prospect. The contrast between due process – however harsh – in Apartheid South Africa and denial of any such process towards some (not least the Pashtun people as a whole) today is indeed disturbing.
 Commonly described as “the Taliban” in reports of conflict, especially when they’ve been killed.