If only we followed in Mandela’s footsteps

One of the traits which has always been associated with Nelson Mandela was the lack of resentment

Yossi Mekelberg
Yossi Mekelberg
Published: Updated:
Read Mode
100% Font Size
9 min read

It was inevitable that the passing of Nelson Mandela, the man revered as the most distinguished leader of his generation, would generate eulogies across the world competing in superlatives praising him. He most probably deserved all the tributes bestowed upon him during his life and after his death for his colossal achievement of leading South Africa out of the dark age of the apartheid era to a free and democratic country. His vision and ability to preside over the transition of a divided and deeply wounded society, pulling it back from the verge of a civil war, is even more appreciated when one observes how excruciating and painful a similar such transition in the Middle East and North Africa has been since the beginning of the Arab Spring three years ago. It is not rare to hear people in many parts of the region express their anguish that there is not at least one Mandela around to lead and guide the way he did in South Africa. However, more than any other issue, the never-ending Israeli-Palestinian conflict could have benefited if the leadership on both sides had cared to carefully study his legacy. A legacy of departing from a troubled past and bitterness, while taking the necessary risks to resolve a bloody conflict in the name of a better future; even if it is not a perfect one. He adopted a realistic view of conflicts arguing that “compromises must be made in respect to every issue as long as the compromise is in the interest, not only of one population group but for the country as a whole. It is the nature of compromises.”

One of the traits which has always been associated with Nelson Mandela was the lack of resentment, especially remarkable for someone who spent twenty seven years in incarceration under unbearable conditions. He was quoted as saying that, “resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.” It is not that he lacked anger towards the Apartheid regime in his country for the ill-treatment of black people in South Africa, but he would not let it take over. His approach was one of restorative justice and reconciliation rather than apportioning blame and punishment.

As Nelson Mandela grew older and became the most respected elder statesman of world affairs, let alone a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, it became almost convenient for many to ignore the fact that his people trusted him to be the person to make peace with their enemy because he was also the one that did not shy away from armed struggle. He did not justify violence as an instrument of revenge or retribution, but was resolute that the oppressive South African government’s tyranny left the ANC little choice but to resort to violence. It was a response to their behavior and not the other way round. Moreover, the only way to bring an end to the abnormality of the situation was to sit for talks with people the regime regarded as terrorists because it was the only way to reach peace. He was not oblivious to the fact that this presented a real dilemma for the government, but as he says in his book Long Walk to Freedom, “it is not my job to resolve your dilemma for you.” Yet, he grasped that despite the discomfort and even friction between the leadership and its constituency, people eventually are inclined to understand that moving forward requires taking tough measures. And, this was one of his strengths as a leader, never being afraid to confront his own supporters when he thought their behavior was harmful to the endgame of uniting the “rainbow nation.”

This has been sadly missing from the negotiations between the Israeli and Palestinian leaders since the early days of the Oslo peace process up until now. Leaders have been too preoccupied with constituency management and less with an inclusive vision of reconciliation. They never missed an opportunity to express contempt for each other, or to score cheap political points at the expense of one another. The Israeli repetitive mantra about the absence of a Palestinian partner lacks Mandela’s deep-seated understanding, that ideal partners do not exist in politics, yet this should not prevent exploring and identifying possible partners without compromising vital interests. It might be cliché that yesterday’s sworn enemies are today’s peace partners; however, there is always an element of truth in clichés. The peace partnership between Nelson Mandela and the then President of South Africa F.W. De Klerk was born out of necessity, not love or even trust. Both of them walked together hand in hand and succeeded in their march for peace because they treated their partnership as sacrosanct to their success. They fended off those who opposed them even if they were from their “natural” constituency.

We hold Nelson Mandela in such high esteem because he set an example of leadership and competence blended with humanity and humility which is so rare

Yossi Mekelberg

Both leaders harbored much suspicion even resentment towards one another, yet always at crucial moments knew how to overcome difficulties and personal acrimony in the name of the common vision. Even when they fought the first free elections in South Africa, Mandela did not lose sight of the dream that they were destined to face the future of the country together after the elections were over, and hence burning bridges would be damaging and counterproductive. When negotiations were at a stalemate, Mandela and De Klerk always knew to pull back from the abyss and avoid tragedy. This is a stark contrast to Israeli and Palestinian negotiators, who seem to be rather content with constant brinkmanship instead of taking calculated risks and making compromises which might achieve progress.

Nelson Mandela never pretended that he was free of fear in the face of the momentous challenges he faced, however, he contended that his courage was one of conquering fears. The Israeli and Palestinian leadership are bogged down with the status quo, exactly because they cannot overcome the fear of breaking the familiar mold, a vicious cycle of violence and hatred, and venture into the unknown.

Mandela as an icon

Admittedly, we hold Nelson Mandela in such high esteem because he set an example of leadership and competence blended with humanity and humility which is so rare. He knew the power of forgiveness, without forgetting the past, while at the same time he appreciated the need to address the future in order to prevent the reoccurrence of such atrocities. It might be unfeasible to expect among us many leaders who can be so comfortable with themselves and have such a clear vision for those who they lead, allowing them to make such a tremendous difference for their people and world. Mandela also recognized the value of symbolic gestures such as donning the No.7 Springbok Rugby shirt at the World Cup, or incorporating the old apartheid national anthem into the new one. He even drew his bodyguard force from old regime people. It is a rare commodity to have leaders with all the personal and leadership traits Nelson Mandela had. However, as the Israeli and Palestinians negotiators are once again stalling on peace for their people, they should stop and reflect about the legacy of this unique leader. They should rise for once above the familiar blame game, the fear and the distrust, and lead their people to a better future, even if an imperfect one, the way Mandela succeed in doing under not more favorable conditions. In doing so, they would spare their own people further pain and misery.


Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.

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