The world will be poorer without Nelson Mandela, possibly the greatest man of
peace in modern times, together with Mahatma Gandhi.
Born into the Madiba
clan, his birth name, Rolihlahla, means “pulling the branch of a tree” and,
He was indeed a troublemaker, rebelling
against corrupt political systems and social prejudice and
Mandela freed the people of South Africa, his greatness
showing also in his attitude to the white Afrikaners, those who committed the
sin of Apartheid, who created a segregated state in which the black majority was
forced into subordination without civil or human rights solely due to the color
of their skin.
When time came to negotiate change in South Africa, after
years of international sanctions, Mandela understood that the black majority
would lose if it were to bring about change through violence or vengeance. After
29 years of imprisonment, when he was finally released from cruel punishment and
seclusion, he said at his very first press conference in freedom, “I have come
not only to change, but also to make peace. I understand the fears of the
It takes a great man, after decades of the most racist and
cruel Apartheid, after three decades in dark prison cells, to express empathy
toward the victimizer.
But it takes not only greatness, but great wisdom
and courage – the wisdom to understand that the future of the black South
Africans depended on the well-being of the white minority; the courage to
express such views to his followers.
In prison, Mandela learned Afrikaans
to have a common language with his wardens and with his oppressors, whom he then
made his partners in South African democratic transition, in talks with
then-president F.W. De Klerk.
Mandela understood that racism toward black
South Africans should not result in racism by them. Many blacks were puzzled
when Mandela saluted the South African rugby team, a symbol of white
nationalism, yet Mandela was reaching out not only to white leaders but also to
the white people.
He believed that the struggle for justice – one man,
one vote – had to be coupled with a struggle for internal peace.
imprisoned in a tiny prison cell on Robben Island, he lifted his spirits by
reading the poem “Invictus” by William Ernest Henley – ending with the command
that we must be the “masters of our fate and the captains of our
In regaining control of their fate, black South Africans had to
remain masters of their souls; not to be corrupted by vengeance, fear or
victory. Therefore Mandela, an educator no less than a statesman, professed
forgiveness, favoring reconciliation searching deep into his humanitarian
As the first black president of South Africa, in 1994, he
established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which investigated human
rights violations under Apartheid, and introduced housing, education and
economic development initiatives designed to improve the living standards of the
country’s black population in cooperation with the white minority. He once
stated, “Courageous people do not fear forgiving for the sake of
As president, he addressed the socialpolitical needs of South
Africa, its economic development, its social cohesion, the need for health and
education for all. The fight against AIDS was one of his primary concerns, and
he raised awareness of it on the global stage. He backed the 46664 AIDS
fund-raising campaign, which was named after his prison number (his own son
Makgatho died of AIDS in 2005).
Mandela also raised global awareness of
the African continent, of which he was an undisputed leader. The “forgotten
continent” began to come out of the shadows, as Mandela was globally acclaimed
and respected. He not only asked for aid, but was able to teach the world a
lesson in understanding, peacemaking and forgiveness.
the South African leader as “a national liberator, savior, its George Washington
and Abraham Lincoln rolled into one.”
Our region has much to learn from
Nelson Mandela. Both Israelis and Arabs are in need of their own Mandelas –
peacemaking and nation-building.
Our Palestinian neighbors have embarked
on a prolonged struggle for nation building and peace. Since Oslo, they have
made some important decisions and progress, yet not sufficiently so. Their
progress is slowed by a sense of victimization, by a latent hatred for the
Israeli occupier, a desire for revenge and hesitant decisions on
A Palestinian Mandela would most probably first speak to the
pride of Palestinians as a young nation, looking for their rightful place under
the sun. He would work for internal reconciliation, for the common good, while
He would call for forgiveness toward Israel and
its misguided policies, and seek reconciliation on the basis of a profound
understanding that humans, be they Israelis or Arabs, are humans. And he would
galvanize the people with authority and charisma, combining national color and a
He would focus more on the future of building the
nation and the state, than on blaming others for mistakes. Social equity,
education above all, health services, women’s rights and a free society would be
the guiding light of a Palestinian Mandela.
Combining self-reliance with
good neighborly and international relations, he would carve out a prominent
place for Palestine in the family of nations.
Israel too is in need of a
Nelson Mandela, a courageous nation-builder and peacemaker, making difficult,
historic decisions. An Israeli Mandela would express great pride and confidence
in our uniqueness and strength, out of which he would embrace our neighbors and
enemies. He would work for trust and battle paranoia and xenophobia.
Mandela view of the world is built on mutual respect for human rights, freedom
and social progress. This leader of peace would understand that peace with our
neighbors is essential for our well-being and security. That peace cannot be
achieved with occupation or through superiority, but by creating better
understanding of each other’s needs. He would disarm hostility by empathizing
with the other side’s needs and fears.
Above all a Mandela peace would be
one of true reconciliation, in which every human life is equal, in which the
worst of enemies is still a human being, black or white, Jew or Arab,
understanding that knowing the other stems from knowing oneself, and that
prejudice and racism must be eradicated.
Mandela’s peace would be a peace
of the brave, taking major historic decisions for change and for the sake of
Such courage would convince partners to join the
peace journey, and one’s own constituency to support it. Mandela’s peace would
not be between leaders, but between people, Israelis and Palestinians involved
in putting a dark past behind them rather than hanging onto hatred, despair and
revenge. All these have no place in a Mandelian vocabulary.
words, such a peace is not merely a political and legal arrangement, but is
based on a profound human view of equality between people and an understanding
that people will move to peaceful coexistence if their basic rights and
aspirations are respected. In Mandela’s own words, “If you want to make peace
with your enemy, you must work with your enemy. Then he becomes your
Israeli occupation of Arabs and Arab rejection of Israel would
have no place in this equation, as both are based on a sense of
A Mandela Israel would respect difference also internally –
a majority rule based on full respect for minorities with equal rights and equal
opportunities, with internal dialogue and reconciliation. It would include a
dialogue between leader and people, a pedagogic dialogue, in which people will
be able to listen to a truthful leader who places human values above political
interest, the people’s needs before his own popularity and who has a unique
capacity to actually listen. Such an Israel would be much respected in the world
and even in the region.
A Mandela-led Palestine and a Mandelaled Israel
would engage in a peace based on equality and humanity, on common interests and
cooperation, on economic growth as part of globalization, and on security, based
mainly on good relations.
Above all, it would be a peace like the South
African one, based on forgiveness.
Both sides have much to forgive. It is
a great human challenge to forgive people who killed your countrymen. It is
necessary because the alternative is revenge. A cycle of forgiveness means life.
A cycle of revenge means death.
Mandela not only preached forgiveness, he
practiced it. In April 1993, the chief of staff of the African National
Congress, a close associate and friend of Nelson Mandela, was assassinated by a
radical Afrikaner a year before the first democratic elections in South Africa.
Shock waves and tension followed the assassination, with fears that the country
would erupt into a civil war.
Mandela decided to address the nation,
appealing for calm, praising an Afrikaner woman who helped in the arrest of the
killer, and calling on all South Africans, black and white, to stand together
and not to take revenge. He was listened to.
There is only one Nelson
Mandela. We here and around the world must learn from his legacy.
writer is president of the Peres Center for Peace and served as Israel’s chief
negotiator for the Oslo Accords. Barbara Hurwitz edited this column.