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Nelson Mandela.(Photo by: REUTERS)
Savir's Corner: Madiba
The world will be poorer without Nelson Mandela, possibly the greatest man of peace in modern times, together with Mahatma Gandhi.
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, colloquially, “troublemaker.”

He was indeed a troublemaker, rebelling against corrupt political systems and social prejudice and injustice.

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 white....”

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.

When 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 soul.”

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 soul.

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 peace.”

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.

Newsweek defined 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 peacemaking.

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 respecting difference.

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 universal message.

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.

A 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 future generations.

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.

In other 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 partner.”

Israeli occupation of Arabs and Arab rejection of Israel would have no place in this equation, as both are based on a sense of superiority.

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.

The 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.
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