As the entire world joined South Africans in laying the father of their nation, Nelson Mandela, to rest this week, much has been said about the genius, determination and humanity of the man who won a revolution without firing a single shot.
But there was one other element to his victory that seems to have escaped the notice of just about everybody who has remarked on his life — and that made it truly unique in human history.
Usually, the script goes like this: The victors, after achieving their goal, usually engage in retribution against the vanquished. The vanquished, in turn, then develop and nurse resentments that guarantee that the conflict just ended will continue in other forms — or repeat itself in the future.
Mandela secured a more durable victory by not following this path. Instead of making the architects of apartheid pay for their wrongs (once more, having already paid by losing power), he sought to bring them in as full participants in the new society he established through “Truth and Reconciliation.”
That last word is key. The goal of both the national unity government he co-led with F.W. de Klerk in the transition to full democracy and the commission he set up to examine the sins of the apartheid regime were to reconcile the oppressed and their former oppressors to the idea of going forward as one. That required both a full airing of the truth and a measure of forgiveness, which is what the Truth and Reconciliation Commission produced.
It seems that this runs counter to our nature, though. The first half of the 20th century proved to be disastrous for Europe in large part because of the onerous reparations the victorious Allies laid on Germany. Civil wars that have led to the splitting of nations across the world do not then bring peace because the vanquished seek to regain what was lost. And American politics today to a degree seems infected by the ghosts of the Civil War, which some have continued to fight by other means.
Viewed from this distance, what seems remarkable about South Africa today is the relative absence of this dynamic. The beneficiaries of apartheid may not necessarily approve of all that has transpired since its fall, but they do not appear to be actively seeking its return. Meanwhile, our politics here have become poisoned by a small group of people who demand, “I want my country back!” (From whom, they don’t say.)
Perhaps had Lincoln not been assassinated, we might have had that sort of reconciliation — “with malice toward none and charity for all.” But we did not, and we continue to pay the price for that now. Where is our Nelson Mandela when we need him?
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