Amandla: Mandela and power to us

It would be too easy to point out how many hypocritical statements were made over the past few days vis-à-vis Mandela’s passing

H.A. Hellyer
H.A. Hellyer
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“To us!”

I was sitting on a stage in Washington, DC when I heard the news of Nelson Mandela’s passing – discussing the rights of demographic, religious and political minorities in Egypt and the Arab world at a human rights conference. I remember thinking, “As though this subject weren’t depressing enough, this is the news I get to hear now.” There was not a single person I saw that day – regardless of political outlook – that did not express regret at Mandela’s death. There are few people who could evoke that kind of response – but over the coming few days, I also saw many political figures who expressed that kind of regret but their entire political careers portrayed their lack of commitment to Mandela’s causes.

It would be too easy to point out how many hypocritical statements were made over the past few days vis-à-vis Mandela’s passing – how his name is now being used and abused to support various individual politicians and political causes in North America, Europe, the Arab world and beyond. Someone will inevitably catalog those who are in power, and those who have lost power, who now use the name of someone whose dignity and commitment put them all to shame. But that is not what this piece is about.

Readers of this column will usually find it bereft of party political partisanship, inherited or otherwise – but one cause that was always stressed in my own upbringing was the Anti-Apartheid Movement of the UK. My father had been an English member of the national executive of that multi-national movement since before I was born – and we lived through the struggle to see it become victorious, which gave us all immense satisfaction. It’s rare indeed that such struggles are actually accomplished in one’s own lifetime – but it was a struggle that laid the building blocks for many ideological leanings for decades. One reason why some are so quick to offer their condolences on the passing of Mandela now, is that during his life, their own ideological preferences meant the betrayal of his struggle – and it is now politically untenable to admit that. Correspondingly, the upholding of the anti-apartheid movement’s struggle meant a very clear perspective in a particular direction, which defined a generation of activists in the UK and elsewhere – even after the end of apartheid.

The first time I visited South Africa was years after apartheid had ended and I saw a very different aspect to Mandela’s victory at that point. Through an armed struggle, and then a political struggle, Mandela, and the then African National Congress, had accomplished the end of the minority white rule in South Africa. That, in itself, was a great accomplishment – but it could have turned to something very evil. Many post-colonial regimes in the 20th century had meant the intensification of a narrow nationalism, reactionary in its own right – but not Mandela’s vision of the new South Africa. Mandela’s vision of a successful transition from apartheid meant that a new notion of what it meant to be South African had to be enshrined. One where all parts of South Africa, and all types of South Africans, felt a stake in the country’s present and future. All racial groups, and all religious groups - the notion of “minority citizenship” simply would not be accepted - and all sectors of society could easily be immensely patriotic, precisely because it was such an inclusive patriotism that Mandela built. One would be hard pressed to see a victorious anti-colonialist movement that succeeded in making that possible so quickly.

Mandela built the sentiment of national belonging on the basis of a very clear commitment – that the sins of the past would not be allowed to define the blessings of the future

H.A. Hellyer

Mandela built the sentiment of national belonging on the basis of a very clear commitment – that the sins of the past would not be allowed to define the blessings of the future. South Africa’s model with regards to “truth and reconciliation” is one that precious few have taken seriously beyond its borders – and yet, it is a model that has proven to deliver so much. Notions of transitional justice are invaluable in, for example, Arab countries that revolted against regimes of tyranny and oppression in the past three years – but no one seems to be taking such notions with any degree of interest. Perhaps they all realize that there are still many within the structures of power that would be embarrassed – or imprisoned – as a result. But surely, Arabs deserve no less than South Africans in this regard.

Time to grow

Mandela’s own model took time – and this could not be more clear than in the process of constitution building in the new South Africa. South Africans created a transitional constitution in 1994, to ensure the government proceeded, and then gave themselves two years to build a final constitution. Two years – not two nights or two months, but two years – to bring honor and respect to those who fought, struggled and died to bring a new South Africa onto the world stage. To do otherwise would have been a grave insult to their memory – and one would be well served to remember in the context of the current Arab transitions. Surely, the differences between supporters within the white minority of apartheid (a form of fascism), and the black majority in South Africa, are not less profound than differences that exist within the Arab world?

Mandela struggled – then he succeeded. He then forgave, and then he forged. His traditional cry – the cry of the anti-apartheid movement – still holds true today. “Amandla! (Power!)” was his cry – and the response would always be “Ngawethu! (To us!)” That notion of “us” is critically important to what Mandela stood for – for power can always be used and abused. When the basis of power is to share it for the common good, such abuses can not only be avoided – but power then can become a tool for everyone to win, as opposed to some of us losing. That lesson is still as critical in 2013, as it was in 1993, when Nelson Mandela won the Nobel Peace Prize. How few there are today that would truly deserve to be recognized in the same way – if any.


Dr. H.A. Hellyer, non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution, the Royal United Services Institute, and ISPU, previously held senior posts at Gallup and Warwick University. Follow him on Twitter at @hahellyer.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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