With the death of Nelson Mandela, without doubt the most significant political leader in my lifetime, lots has been written about his impact not only on South Africa but also on the world. And plenty is still to be written. Mandela’s impact comes in many ways large and small, but more importantly it still resonates today. One of my most rewarding experiences in my life has been meeting members of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. And of course, without Mandela the TRC would not have existed. Mandela is/was a true titan.
Earlier today FOI Charlie Craver (George Washington) sent out an email on the ADR listserv describing his work as a mediator in South Africa while the terms of both the Interim Constitution and the fall 1994 elections were being negotiated. I asked him if he would take the time to discuss his experience further and here’s what he’s sent along.
South Africa was a most unusual country. A small group of wealthy white persons completely dehumanized millions of individuals solely because of their race. When I met with white leaders, it was as if they had no idea how blacks were living. I had a discussion with two Conservative Members of Parliament who emphasized the fact their families had gone back 350 years in South Africa. When I politely suggested that black South Africans had gone back somewhat further, I could tell from the looks on their faces that they had never even considered this fact. Our subsequent discussions became much more productive after this exchange.
The worst day of my professional life was when I spent a day in Soweto. The conditions in many areas of that Township were unconscionable. Many homes had no sewage, no electricity, and minimal water. A huge percentage of residents were unemployed and without monetary support. When I had lunch, I could hardly eat. Although the food was lovely, I could not eat in an area surrounded by so many persons who were treated in such a subhuman manner.
South Africa was able to finally achieve true democracy because of an extraordinary man named Mandela. He spent twenty-seven years of his life in cruel prison cells fighting for the freedom of all South Africans. Although the government tried on several occasions to talk him into accepting something less than true democracy in exchange for his freedom, he made it clear that he would never accept such terms. He and Gandhi were two of the most exceptional leaders of the past century. I only wish that they could have lived on forever to the benefit of all citizens of the entire world.