A Dignified Warrior for Peace: Nelson Mandela

By Joanne St. Lewis, Professor of Law at the University of Ottawa

My heart is heavy. The braided life of pain, joy, courage, strength and love – indeed, all that was the brilliant complex persona of Nelson Mandela is no more. Mandela is the most significant public intellectual of my lifetime. He spoke to the many threads of my identity – my Caribbean/African intellectual roots, the historical realities of all Africa’s children labouring to make visible the continuing realities of a formal colonialism largely seen as past, my aspirations for a deeply meaningful life in the law and all my hope for the full realization of Black/African empowerment in my lifetime.

Mandela demonstrated that spiritual politics is not mere rhetoric. It can transform the world. He demonstrated without equivocation that civility, dignity and leadership were indigenous to Africa. He ushered in a model for transitional governance rooted in the South African philosophical ethic of Ubuntu of his forefathers/mothers. In this effort, he joined in solidarity with fellow activists including Archbishop Desmond Tutu. The South African Truth and Reconciliation (TRC) is the aspirational model for non-violent change echoed and desired by many around the world.


Mandela’s entire public life was a political call for action.

One need only read Antjie Krog’s Country of My Skull: Guilt, Sorrow and the Limits of Forgiveness in the New South Africa, to realize the complexity of the model. Most importantly, the TRC made the history of South African Black peoples one that could be internalized and claimed by White South Africans estranged, deformed and sometimes yearning through the corruption that was apartheid. As she said in her closing poem, speaking to and about the TRC participants: Because of you / This country no longer lies / Between us but within.

The TRC was a public act of acknowledgement and contrition divorced from any South African state desire to be absolved of legal liability. This came later under other leadership. It was a shining beacon of governance by example. We were witness to forgiveness, as political method, raw and true. South Africans from diverse communities, came together in the fullness of their imperfect humanity.  This moment required trust. Trust in their hearts’ yearning for peace. Trust in their spiritual imagination. Trust in their leader, Mandela. Mandela’s generosity of spirit upon his release was rooted within Ubuntu. He had already shown them the path through his own grace upon his release from captivity. Through their participation in the TRC, South Africans embraced their leader and sought to succor him while seeking to alleviate their own pain.

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There is absolutely no doubt that Nelson Mandela was extraordinary. In a world where the cult of personality often reduces the actions of individuals to content-less fodder for the infotainment industry – he stood alone. The joy and admiration in his presence and words transcended race, class, age, gender and nation state boundaries. All the boundaries that divide us became ephemera. He was not simply charismatic. He was loved. Loved by his country(wo)men and embraced by the world.  His words and actions transformed international governance, as the leaders of the world saw a reflection of themselves as whole souled. For those moments, they were willing to see themselves through the eyes of this unique man, a Black man – a man they wished to emulate.

Mandela’s entire public life was a political call for action. As the elder statesman of the African continent, he sought to harness the collaborative potential of its disparate nations. He sought to empower and galvanize the African Union as a platform for Africa’s control of its continental politics. Today, the same world leaders who rise to applaud Mandela, the icon, remain reluctant to taking political direction from Mandela, the African statesman. There was no risk to Western nations in condemning apartheid but there is risk and a conflict of interest in redressing the economic power imbalance between the African continent and the West. There has been an almost total failure by Western nations to critically evaluate and account for the practices of their institutions such as the World Bank, IMF and WTO that consciously maintain the economic subordination of Africa and other nations from the South. There is continued resistance to acknowledge the entitlement of Africa’s multiplicity of nations to equality in the community of nations. The missionary ethic of “rescue” remains, albeit with a shrinking of the alms provided. Mandela’s continental and international leadership in this area is far less comfortable a topic at this moment of mourning….


Read the rest of this essay on the Blogging for Equality website.

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