Where Is America’s Nelson Mandela?

The man’s true brilliance lay in his conquering his foes by embracing them. It’s a quality completely lacking in our country’s politics.

nelson mandela lgbt

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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  • DTurner

    While I have to agree to some extent, Sandy, we need to a little more positive about our current situation. We are still recovering from one of the worst economic downturns in a century and while the last economic collapse gave rise to fascism and even (some say) concrete plots to overthrow the U.S. government, we are still functioning.

    Look at the recent bipartisan budget deal put forward, for example; while we continue to think that reconciliation is totally out of our grasp, we may be turning a corner.

    • http://blog.philadelphiarealestate.com/ Sandy Smith

      I certainly hope so. But I worry for that segment of the population that “wants its country back.” While small in both absolute numbers and percentage terms, it holds disproportionate sway over the current strategies and thinking of one of our two major parties.

      • DTurner

        I think that is certainly a concern, but we might be see the tide ebbing at this point. Looking at the budget deal though, it seems like more moderate conservative elements, led by Paul Ryan, are realizing that they can get more done by working with moderate Democrats, rather than threatening to shut down the government.

        You’re also seeing the growing popularity of Chris Christie who, for all his problems, still stands as a model of bipartisanship (a view he does everything to bolster).

        Every period of economic and political upheaval brings out the crazies (on both sides), but it looks like those movements might be dying down with the stabilization of the economy. The most productive thing we can do at this point is to ignore the fringes and just sit down and negotiate with one another. That’s the only civilized way to get things done.

  • Stein

    Nelson Mandela also had the keen foresight to shitcan his wackadoo leftist wife Winnie. If she had her tyrannical leftist druthers, there would be millions of South Africans murdered at the hands of the state.

    Good on ya, Nelson. Shitcan the Leftists.