Not just a symbol

Nelson Mandela was not just a symbol, he was the architect of reconciliation.

Former South African President Nelson Mandela speaks after being conferred with an Honorary Doctorate of Laws at the University of Galway in 2003

Former South African President Nelson Mandela speaks after being conferred with an Honorary Doctorate of Laws at the University of Galway in 2003


The 20th century began, it has been said, when Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990. If that is true, then I was privileged to spend the 20th century with Nelson Mandela, first in the negotiations that led to the end of apartheid and then in his cabinet as a minister serving the first democratically elected government of South Africa. Those were remarkable years. We were honoured to work with him and happy just to be with him.

We knew him long before we met him. While he was on one island, the prison of Robben Island, those of us in the Irish Anti-Apartheid Movement on another island, Ireland, focused our efforts on his freedom. Nelson Mandela became the most recognised name – if not yet the face – in this world.

It was only after two hours in our sitting-room in Foxrock staring at the television, waiting, that on February 9th, 1990, we finally got to see him. Anti-apartheid committee members crowded into our house, cheered and raised glasses of champagne. Friends, neighbours, and people we hardly knew phoned congratulations and sent bouquets of flowers.

Then, when we finally met him, it turned out he also knew us. When Nelson Mandela came to Ireland in June 1990, as part of his whirlwind world tour, he already knew everyone in the Irish Anti-Apartheid Movement (IAAM). He knew their spouses. When we met, he immediately asked, “How is Louise?”

I was given the responsibility of providing him with a background briefing on Irish politics, especially in the context of political violence in Northern Ireland. In his direct, forthright manner, Mandela had said in an interview that the British government should negotiate with the IRA. This remark created quite a stir in the press and, oddly, even some resignations from the IAAM, but it was in keeping with his understanding that enemies must negotiate. “You don’t negotiate with your friends,” he said. “You negotiate with your enemies.” Still, I had to tell him that the British government was not prepared to talk to the IRA. It would be like the sky falling.

Six years later, when negotiations with the IRA, through their political wing, were under way, President Mandela phoned me: “Hey Kader, is the sky falling on the British government?” he asked.

During our own negotiations, we found him to be larger than life. He did not interfere with the day-to-day negotiations. He accepted the collective decisions of the National Executive Committee of the African National Congress; on occasion, we over-ruled his advice or suggestions. This grew out of his enduring sense of loyalty. I often think of President Mandela’s favourite self-description: “I am a loyal, disciplined member of the African National Congress.” But it also grew out of the trust he had in the members of his negotiation team. Based on that trust, he was able to give considerable scope to his negotiators.

In 1993, when our negotiations broke down after the horrific Boipatong massacre, Mandela’s steel came out. I can see him clearly, standing in his quiet dignity, confronting the apartheid regime with our non-negotiable commitments. This moment was the turning point in achieving a settlement in South Africa.

When Chris Hani was murdered, in a remarkable act of statesmanship he went on television to allay anxieties and to quieten passions. The actual state president, de Klerk, was nowhere to be seen or heard. Madiba – as we affectionately referred to him – became in effect, long before the elections in 1994, the de facto president of South Africa.

During his actual presidency, Nelson Mandela emerged as our central symbol of reconciliation. But he was not merely a symbol. He was the architect of reconciliation. He actively built reconciliation in personal gestures, such as his meetings with former leaders of the apartheid regime, and in setting up formal structures such as the truth and reconciliation commission.

Warmth and generosity
His warmth and generosity were overwhelming. Where in the world would a president dive into the kitchens of hotels to thank the cleaners and other staff after an official function?

He did not have to step down as president in 1999. But he wanted to establish the principle of leadership succession in consolidating our democracy. There are present-day lessons for us here.

After retirement
Certainly, over the past eight years since his retirement, he showed extraordinary energy in advancing international peace-building, combating HIV/Aids through the Nelson Mandela Foundation, addressing the problems of children and youth through the work of his children’s fund and providing scholarships through the Mandela-Rhodes Fund. As he said to me: “I might be retired, but I will never stop working. That would kill me.” More recently, he did less but with the serenity we associated with him.

On his 85th birthday, we started the celebrations by presenting him with a book of his speeches with tributes by people who have been close to him. His office said he could only speak for five minutes; instead, for nearly half an hour, he gave us a vivid history lesson about resistance to oppression in South Africa. He singled out heroes of resistance – the Khoi, Xhosa and the Venda leaders. “Don’t remember me,” he said, “remember them.” As he explained, these heroes remind us that our struggle was a long struggle against oppression fought by and for all the people of South Africa.

Embodied the struggle
Still, we cannot forget Mandela because he embodied that struggle. He was recognised for his distinctive merger of the personal and the political. Political transformation in South Africa was enabled by Mandela’s personal capacity to purge any poison of hatred or revenge from his soul, to rise above bitterness, to demonstrate a generosity of spirit and to reach out to others, all the while remaining true to his political principles.

We see a remarkable consistency in those principles. Being a statesman has never meant that he would not speak his mind. I know that some controversy was generated by his criticism of unilateral military action by the US in Iraq in his speech at the National University of Ireland, Galway, when he received an honorary degree in 2003. He burnt his fingers by advocating sanctions against the dictatorship of Abacha in Nigeria. No other country supported him but he was true to principle.

He had said much the same thing at an ANC meeting in 1951. He identified military forces in the world that were “prepared to go to war in defence of colonialism, imperialism and their profits”, but he also identified the psychological dynamics in which global forces were “determined to perpetuate a permanent atmosphere of crisis and fear in the world”. Assuming that frightened people cannot think clearly, those forces were attempting to “create conditions under which common men [and women] might be inveigled into supporting the building of more and more atomic bombs, bacteriological weapons, and other instruments of mass destruction”.

Although ordinary people had become targets of this military and psychological violence, they also had the resources, as Mandela insisted, to build peace by rising from being the object of history to becoming “conscious creators of their own history”.

Mandela’s extraordinary gift is this ordinary freedom. “Unhappy the land”, goes the proverb, “that has no heroes.” “Unhappy the land”, replied Bertolt Brecht, “that needs heroes.”

In a tribute to Mandela on a visit to Ireland, Fintan O’Toole recalled these lines from Brecht to conclude that Mandela’s greatest gift was “to make his country a land fit, not for heroes, but for the courage and dignity of ordinary men and women living their daily lives in peace and freedom”. Every day in South Africa, we are grateful for that gift.

This previously unpublished article was written by the late Kader Asmal in 2007. Prof Asmal was a minister of education in South Africa and was co-editor of Nelson Mandela, in his Own Words: From Freedom to the Future, published by Little, Brown. He was a founder and chairman of the Irish Anti-Apartheid Movement until his return to South Africa in 1990.

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