My Grandfather Nelson Mandela Used Moral Leadership To End Apartheid. Can It End The War In Ukraine?

Local residents examine a destroyed Russian tank outside Kyiv on May 31, 2022.DIMITAR DILKOFF/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES


President Volodymyr Zelensky recently made headlines by stating the Russia-Ukraine war must end with negotiations and diplomacy. My grandfather—Nelson Mandela—would have agreed. After all, he knew that dialogue and moral leadership are essential to securing sustainable peace. See, the anti-apartheid struggle was fought on many fronts. But the most important was the moral one.

Prior to Mandela, white South Africans generally did not see apartheid as evil. But under my grandfather's leadership and strong moral guidance, their views drastically changed and the battle against apartheid became a unifying national struggle. The key to such success? Unwavering moral leadership.

Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu and other leaders of the movement won the battle for hearts and minds—uniting what had been a deeply fractured state. It is this rare form of political leadership—one grounded in morality—that the rest of the world can—and must—learn from. And for Russia and Ukraine, it could make all the difference in what looks increasingly like a long-drawn-out conflict.

Zelensky has been widely upheld as a paragon of moral leadership by the West—even being vaunted as a potential Nobel Peace Prize winner. But for such moral authority to have a truly demonstrable impact, it must resonate with not only the West, but the very constituencies that stand across from him in this conflict—the Russian public. And that can only happen by expressing a narrative focused on a shared, common humanity—just like anti-apartheid leaders did.

Such sentiments may, at first, seem counterintuitive. After all, it was Russia that invaded Ukraine—who have had to defend their nation. But the longer this conflict drags on, the greater the influence of public opinion in both camps will be—either to pressure their leaders to pursue peace or—conversely—to harden their resolve in continuing to fight.

Of course, changing public opinion would necessitate moral coalitions: Coalitions of civil society organizations, religious leaders, literary voices—figures that people on each side resonate with, relate to and look up to.

In South Africa, it was a coalition of peacebuilders and moral leaders that gave life to the anti-apartheid message. So powerful did it become that ordinary white South Africans could not help but at first acknowledge it, then respect it and eventually embrace it. However, building such coalitions during periods of deep division, tribalism and animosity is not easy.

That's where the role of the international community comes into play. Moral coalitions during times of conflict are not always developed from within. They must be encouraged from outside, too.

The role of global civil society was prominent during apartheid. Religious leaders outside of South Africa engaged, encouraged and supported their counterparts within the country—both Black and white, to take the right steps. As did political, civil society and countless other prominent figures and organizations.

Similarly, global civil society must engage their counterparts in conflict zones like Russia-Ukraine to encourage narratives of peacebuilding to gain momentum. When the Pope stated he wished to meet President Vladimir Putin to help end the war, it was a small step in the right direction.

In fact, religious leadership within Ukraine and Russia is an interesting case in point. Orthodox Christian institutions in both countries have been heavily politicized during the conflict. That's because they wield tremendous moral authority and respect from ordinary Russians and Ukrainians.

Both the head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and a senior representative of the Russian Orthodox patriarch sat around the same table recently. At Saudi Arabia's first ever interfaith gathering organized by Muhammad bin Abdul Karim Issa, secretary general of the the Muslim World League, they and 100 other religious leaders including Vatican representatives, evangelicals, rabbis and Hindu and Buddhist priests, agreed to collaborate around peacebuilding and the exploration of common ground. This is precisely what global forums and partnerships can achieve—inching powerful civil society voices together in the pursuit of common ground.

That is, after all, how Track 2 diplomacy works; by pursuing enough in the way of common values and common ground between non-governmental voices of influence on both sides of a conflict to develop a common vision for peace—one that can be presented to each side's political leadership.

Moral leadership from figures like Zelensky is crucial to making these kinds of openings possible. However, the important persona of moral authority associated with Zelensky also risks being punctured if we are not careful. Let's not forget that early in the conflict, reports about the treatment of some minorities in Ukraine revealed worrying prejudices based on racial grounds.

Thousands of students of color were deprioritized and trapped in Ukraine. And though the Ukrainian government addressed the horrific treatment of minorities at the border, the war revealed that refugees of color are, unfortunately, treated differently than those of Caucasian heritage.

Moral authority does not work selectively. And such double standards risk undermining the creation of global moral coalitions so crucial for peace in Ukraine, before they even begin.

Mandela—for one—realized that a prosperous and democratic South Africa was in the interest of all. And for the Ukraine-Russian war to resolve, Zelensky must realize that moral leadership during times of conflict is not just about one goal, or one person, but for all of shared humanity.

Ndileka Mandela is a writer, social activist and the head of one of South Africa's most prominent rural upliftment organizations, the Thembekile Mandela Foundation, which works around education, health, youth and women's development in rural villages. She is one of South Africa's best-known feminists and the eldest grandchild of Nelson Mandela. She is on the board of several NGOs and philanthropic organizations and is an outspoken supporter of the #MeToo movement, using her platform to combat stigma surrounding sexual violence.