Saturday, 31 July 2010

Mandela's values: reconciliation & a complicated transition

The values of Mandela have been described and listed in a variety of ways; almost always, reconciliation features at the top and as a central part of his legacy. This reconciliation is also said to be embedded in the leadership style of Nelson Mandela, especially of the man that emerged from 27 years of imprisonment at the hands of the apartheid system.

The issue was brought to the fore again in a recent discussion (29 July 2010) at Wits Theatre Johannesburg where writers such as Nadine Gordiner, Achmat Dangor, John Kani and Chilean-American Ariel Dorfman shared a stage.

Reconciliation, according to John Kani, was flawed if it did not bring about social justice. In a segment from his play - Nothing But The Truth - that Kani read out on the night, the character Sipho insisted that he wanted a white policeman that shot his son during the apartheid conflict brought to court and found guilty.

While Sipho wanted the perpetrator to pay for his unjust deed (retribution), John Kani the author spoke of the need for justice, for reconciliation to be accompanied with 'righting' of wrongs and for payback in the sense of socio-economic justice for the black community. While retribution and revenge, taken either personally or historically, are never a resolution, Kani's call for restoration makes sense. If, for example, you steal my bicycle, it is not enough for you to say sorry to me when your actions catch up with you. It is reasonable that I expect you to return the bicycle to me.

For Dorfman, who spoke at a screening of a film in which he featured earlier in the same week, the question of reconciliation came to the fore in an oblique way. He did not use the term, but he noted that one of the greatest errors (leading to the downfall of the Salvador Allende government in 1973) was the failure to respond creatively to the middle class who feared that they would lose everything (property, farms, businesses, ownership rights, their wealth). "We should have realised we could not implement radical social change without getting the middle class on our side," he said. The 1973 coup ejected the democratically elected government and began a 15-year reign of repression that included widespread killings, torture and disappearances.

Reflecting on these two perspectives - Kani's and Dorfman's - one can see how Mandela's reconciliaton was, on the one hand, correct and, on the other hand, incomplete.

Emerging from prison to see close at hand a society fraught with violent conflict and as deeply divided as ever, Mandela was keen to undermine mobilisation of the right wing and to disrupt the possibility of solid (white) middle class sympathy for such forces. In this context, he skilfully crafted his reconciliation approach and led its implementation within the negotiation process and at various levels in society.

The 'Mandela Way', so to speak, involved - while putting in place universal political and civil rights - breaking down divides between people, establishing symbols acceptable on all sides, emphasizing a shared humanity and personally reaching out to various population groups and in particular the Afrikaner community. These approaches form core parts of his leadership style.

I term this reconciliation 'functional reconciliation'. Needless to say, it was critically important and a vital part of the transformation process - avoiding a slide into a sustained period of violent upheavel and militarised resistance to democratic change.It speaks to the astute leadership and the acute historical understanding on the part of Madiba.

The challenge now is to move from 'functional reconciliation' to a substantive reconciliation - one in which elements of restorative justice and reparations are strongly present and in which greater economic justice helped to create a well-grounded stability and a 'just peace'.