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It would be inaccurate to search for a Mahatma Gandhi or a Martin Luther King, Jr., in Nelson Mandela (18 July 1918—5 December 2013). Mandela was not a principled non-violent leader with a very strong belief concerning the philosophy of nonviolent resistance. However, he was a representative of a moral political leadership, which did not separate between politics and ethics in the name of a Machiavellian realism or a Leninist vanguardism.

Nelson Mandela was a man who cherished the ideal of a free society all his life, an ideal that, as he proclaimed at his trial in Pretoria in April 1964, he hoped to live for, but if need be, die for. During his lifetime Mandela dedicated himself to the freedom struggle of the African people. To do this, he fought against White and Black dominations in South Africa. But more than anything else, he fought for democracy as a plural society in which all persons of all races, languages and opinions can live together in harmony and with equal opportunity. However, what Nelson Mandela as a political and moral leader made possible for humanity was to extend and expand our capacity to rethink politics in terms of an ethics of empathy, a politics of forgiveness and a revolution of values in South Africa. As such, Mandela was not necessarily, as he proclaimed later, “an ordinary man who became a leader because of extraordinary circumstances". Truly speaking, the South African transition to democracy, under the leadership of Mandela, was a great work of political creativity and moral wisdom. As a matter of fact, the two famous definitions of human being by Aristotle, that he is a political being and a being endowed with speech, supplement each other in Mandela’s anti-Apartheid practice of freedom. What Mandela understood through his life experience was that freedom cannot be speechless, while violence is incapable of speech. That such an outspokenness (what the ancient Greeks called parrhesia) must be intimately connected with the ideal of freedom seems to be vouched for by the legendary life of Mandela himself. Mandela’s life experience speaks clearly for itself: the transformation of Mandela himself and that of the South African society went hand in hand.

At his famous Rivonia trial, Mandela insisted on the African National Congress’s heritage of nonviolence and racial harmony and delivered his historical speech which received sympathetic treatment around the world. On 12 June 1962, Judge de Wet pronounced life imprisonment for Mandela and his fellow prisoners. From that day on Mandela spent 27 years and six months in captivity. More than 17 years of this sentence was held on Robben Island as the prisoner 466/64. However, as he wrote later, prison gave him plenty of time “to stand back and look at the entire movement from a distance." He revised his views and values, while keeping his moral authority and his capacities for political judgment.

Nelson Mandela walked out of the Victor Verster prison at 4.14pm on 11 February 1990, but his march to freedom still had some way to travel. The second memorable moment of his life and that of South African nation was when he was elected on 27 April 1994, as South Africa’s first democratic President. As such, “Madiba", as Mandela was called by his clan name, accomplished his heroic and messianic status, by having met the challenges of his life and those of his time. Either as an activist, as a prisoner or as a leader in government, Nelson Mandela remained intensely conscious of his moral and political responsibilities as a man in search for excellence. Even after he died on 5 December 2013, at his home in Houghton, he remained a national and international figure with a legacy of politics of excellence.

Once again, what distinguished Mandela as a moral leader, from ordinary politicians with no moral capital, was the absence of bitterness and vengeance in him, which were certainly central to what came later in South Africa. It is so interesting that while preserving his dignity as a prisoner and as a political leader, he never tried to humiliate his political opponents. Accordingly, Mandela accumulated his moral capital as a leader through his empathetic ethics and with a self-conscious respect for the otherness of the Other. That is why, then, there were certainly moments and phases in Mandela’s life when his character as a moral leader and as a democratic hero came closer to the Gandhian ideal of a nonviolent Satyagrahi. It is with this Gandhian spirit in mind that Mandela accepted to join hands with his enemies in order to drag South Africa out of hatred and bloodshed.

If Mandela is celebrated today as a leader with a moral capital, rather than a pure Gandhian, it is mainly because his politics of dialogue and reconciliation is more relevant than ever for all those who continue to believe in the nonviolent pursuit of public happiness and in the actions of human beings engaged in governing themselves.


Ramin Jahanbegloo is executive director, Mahatma Gandhi Centre for Peace Studies

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