During the 1980’s, when South Africa was in the news all the time, when the divestment movement was in full swing on college campuses and countries around the world were imposing sanctions, when South Africa was being ripped apart by repression and terrible violence, I remember thinking that South Africa served in some ways as a microcosm of the whole world. In that country a small minority of European ancestry was imposing its will on the majority African population, consuming most of the wealth for itself, and adhering to the fiction that the majority population could be confined to a few artificial “homelands.” It was an unsustainable system, but the leaders of South Africa seemed unwilling to yield.
I remember doubting during those times that South Africa would be able to resolve its terrible conflicts without prolonged and brutal civil war, which seemed almost inevitable, and that this country’s likely fate did not portend well for the rest of the world’s ability to resolve similar problems of discrimination, oppression and injustice. On the other hand, if South Africa could somehow end the system of apartheid peacefully, maybe there was hope for the rest of us.
The fact that South Africa did manage to emerge from those dark days to find a more just system, and that it did not fall into civil war, was in large part due to the example of one man, Nelson Mandela. During the 1980’s, Mandela was repeatedly offered release from prison, if he would agree to renounce violence, but he refused to accept his release on the government’s terms. What Mandela did do, however, while still in prison, and in contrast to other political prisoners at the time, was to agree to enter into negotiations with the government. It took considerable courage to negotiate rather than continue to fight.
Gradually, Mandela was offered better conditions, and was treated with more dignity and respect, until he finally won release on his terms. After that it took years of additional negotiations before South Africa finally adopted a new constitutional system allowing for majority rule. Mandela showed the necessary patience and perseverance to see these negotiations through. And what was probably most remarkable, he treated his former captors magnanimously, and refused to give in to hate. In saving South Africa, he also gave hope to the rest of the world.