Sri Lankans Can Learn From Mandela’s Visionary Thinking

Excerpts Of The Nelson Mandela
Memorial Lecture Delivered By

Premakumara de Silva,
Chair Professor Of Sociology, 
University Of Colombo

On 18 July 2023 at the Tharangani Hall, Sri Lanka Film Co-operation, Colombo. The lecture was organised by The Ministry of Higher Education and High Commission of South Africa, in Colombo.

As we all know, Mr. Nelson Mandela was an antiapartheid activist, politician and philanthropist who became South Africa’s first black President from 1994-1999. He was born in Cape Province, South Africa, on 18th July 1918, day like this. He died at age of 95 on 5th December 2013 in Johannesburg. Nelson Mandela was an extraordinary leader, who fought for the citizen’s rights and was the main influence in removing apartheid, which was practiced as the law of the land in South Africa since 1948. This law not only created a social gap between the Whites and the Blacks in the country but also fuelled the discrimination against the black population.

The policies during his leadership (1994-1999) were mainly aimed at improving the economy while reducing the social inequalities. One such policy is the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RPD). The purpose of this RPD is to overcome the social and economic problems faced by South Africans, such as violence, lack of jobs, of housing, equal access to adequate education, and healthcare. At the time of Apartheid, there was a division of cities where White people were placed in developing cities while Black people were placed in cities that were marginalized and neglected, even their housing was in the form of huts. So South Africa was a structurally unequal society where Black people were visibly marginalized and discriminated on the basis of colour of their skin.

Nelson Mandela joined the African National Congress (ANC), in 1942, the organization that was aiming for the independence of the South African people from apartheid and bringing equal rights for all groups. Mandela was one of the important figures in this movement and played a major role. He has directed peaceful campaigns, challenging violence against the government of South Africa and its racial policies for over 20 years. Nelson Mandela presented several important strategies related to his struggle against apartheid through the ANC under pressure from the South African government at the time. He launched the M-Plan (Plan Mandela). He was also a member of the People’s Charter for Congress and Freedom. The Pan African Congress, PAC, was formed under Robert Sobukwe’s leadership in 1959. The ANC and PAC responded by setting up a military wing in 1961. Nelson Mandela was instrumental in creating the ANC group in what was a radical departure from the ANC policy.

On 30th July 1952, under the Law on the Eradication of Communism, Mandela was arrested and tried in Johannesburg as part of 21 defendants. Convicted of violating this law, their forced labour sentence of nine months was extended to two years. Mandela was banned for a period of six months in December from attending meetings or talking to more than one person. On July 11, 1963, he was arrested again with other leaders. In the trial, Nelson Mandela was charged with more than 200 charges of “sabotage, preparing for guerrilla warfare in SA, and preparing for SA’s armed invasion.” Mandela was one of five (out of 10 defendants) to be sentenced to a life sentence and was sent to Robben Island.

Strong protests against Mandela’s arrest were increasingly voiced to the government through the ANC’s continuing movements. The world also supported the liberation movement of Mandela, including the UN. The UN obviously set out to fight Apartheid on 1 January 1976. Resolution 554 (UN 2014) was also issued on 17 August 1984. At that time, various violent protests were directed at the government of South Africa. Nelson Mandela’s 70th Birthday Tribute at Wembley Stadium was made on June 11, 1988. The concert, broadcast to 67 countries with over 600 million audiences, was one of the protests against Nelson Mandela’s imprisonment by the South African government.

Nelson Mandela was finally released from Victor Verster Prison on 11th February 1990. ANC and Nelson Mandela’s struggle was not in vain. South Africa finally succeeded in holding a democratic presidential election on October 3rd, 1994, without any racial differentiation of rights. Nelson Mandela’s inauguration as the first black President of the country on May 10th, 1994, at the age of 77, with Willem de Klerk being the first Deputy, was one of the ANC’s goals in carrying out resistance to Apartheid politics. Mandela worked to bring the transition from minority rule and most Black Apartheid rules, from 1994 to June 1999.

During the Mandela era, ANC’s strength was its ability to portray itself as a more racially inclusive alternative to South Africa’s racially segregated colonial and Apartheid ruling parties. Mandela did not respond to narrow African nationalism. His outlook for African nationalism was far more inclusive than those of many leaders in today’s Africa.

South African National Reconciliation

Let me say something about his national reconciliation project. As Sri Lankans we certainly can learn a lesson from his visionary thinking. On many occasions after being elected President, Mandela made more speeches about the beginning of the struggle to make improvements in various fields of life in South Africa based on democracy and respect for equal rights between Whites and Blacks, and other racial groups in South Africa. New challenges for South Africa can be described as “Crafting representative social institutions of deep-seated ethnic rivalries and economic inequalities.” Establishment of institutions representing various parties and obtaining public trust in societies divided by economic, ethnic and social rivalries that ran very deep was a very heavy homework for transitional government. It shows how complex the problems faced by the new South African regime. Mandela’s main concern after being elected President was to create a new pattern of relations that was more harmonious among various different races and ethnicities in South Africa. In the transition period 1990-1994, Mandela and de Klerk played an important role in preventing the occurrence of wider conflicts and violence. It was described that Mandela and de Klerk shared the same essential character of leadership, namely the willingness to change South African political legitimacy based on Proportional Representation, one thing that had never existed in previous South African political history. De Klerk and Mandela began the process of negotiation and power sharing which made the process of political transition in South Africa peaceful and a model that should be learned by other countries particularly by a country like ours.

Efforts to create a more harmonious and conducive relationship for the development of South Africa in the future began with reconciliation of various cases of State violence that occurred during South Africa still shackled in Apartheid politics. The term “reconciliation” itself became very popular in discussing conflict studies precisely because of what various parties and actors in South Africa had tried. The South African phenomenon seems to be a kind of textbook for the development of the concept of post conflict reconciliation because it is considered successful in developing methods to build more stable relationships between previously conflicting actors, more durable peace and strong legitimacy for post-conflict policies. But efforts to see the phenomenon of reconciliation in South Africa are not based solely on optimistic voices.

Concerns also emerged regarding efforts to eliminate Apartheid in South Africa. Apartheid as a systematic state policy based on the differentiation of treatment of the State based on race or skin colour may be easier to erase or replace, but as an ideology that has been practiced for years and based on patterns of racial relations that have been built for centuries, it was not an easy task. Apartheid is a complex problem. So those who tend to be pessimistic are not arguing about the problem of the possibility of the elimination of Apartheid but more of the continuous processes needed to carry out the overall elimination of the existence of Apartheid at the State level as a policy, or at the social level as values that shape individual behaviour in context of social interaction.

The initial stage of the South African reconciliation process began with the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). This institution was formed after Mandela received and listened to proposals from various groups, especially civil society organizations in South Africa. Through the public selection process, commissioners were chosen to lead the institution. The commission was led by the South African archbishop, Rev. Desmond Tutu, a respected black Christian figure. TRC is based on several thoughts as follows:

A non-Racial Ideology of Reconciliation:

The view that South African reconciliation was based on efforts to abolish the racial identity created by Apartheid

An Inter-communal Ideology of Reconciliation:

Reconciliation is seen as an attempt to bridge community groups divided by Apartheid by creating a shared understanding of democratic values on both sides of the community or society.

A Religious and Human Rights Ideology of Reconciliation

: Reconciliation is a strengthening of religious and humanitarian values to apologize and use Apartheid’s past as an important lesson so that it does not happen again in the future.

These ideal rationale shows that the important orientation of the reconciliation effort to be carried out by TRC is emphasized on creating harmony for the lives of the people of South Africa to build in the future, not only focusing on the issue of disclosing violence and achieving justice for victims. The view of justice in the context of reconciliation will threaten the perpetrators of violence in the past in the present context. The view that they are guilty parties, solely, will actually hinder the participation of perpetrators of violence in the process of reconciliation, to those who are disadvantaged (Blacks) but also relates to those who benefit from the Apartheid system. This goal is far broader than just dealing with the problems of violence that occur, but also related to efforts to form new foundations for the people of South Africa.

Let me wind up my brief intervention here by saying something that relates to our country. Nelson Mandela is no more, but his legacy would hopefully inspire people, particularly the young, for some generations to come all over the world, including Sri Lanka. His book “A Long March to Freedom” must be a text book for every Sri Lankan. The story of his life, his determination to struggle for justice, his vision for a reconciled society or nation, and, most importantly, his exceptional human quality to see the others to be worthy of forgiveness are crucially important historical lessons for all communities in Sri Lanka in achieving a better future for their apprehension.

In a sense, South Africa’s conflict was much more complicated than Sri Lanka’s one. It was mainly a racial conflict between the indigenous ‘Blacks’ and the migrant ‘Whites,’ underpinned by vast economic and class differences. Racial prejudices are naturally much deeper and difficult to reconcile, although equally superficial. There are no racial differences between the Sinhalese, the Tamils and the Muslims. They all come, more or less, from the same ‘racial’ stock, if you want to claim so. The economic differences are much less, except in the case of the plantation Tamils.

This is not to undermine the feelings of discrimination by minorities in Sri Lanka often equated to ‘Apartheid,’ but to get a correct comparative picture of the two situations. Perhaps Sri Lanka is much more complicated at least in one major aspect with majority sanctions for discrimination, naturally difficult to unravel. Mandela said “people are undoubtedly at fault, but the systems are more at fault than the people. We all are victims of systems.” He appreciated Willem de Klerk’s goodwill, and if not for that goodwill or pragmatism he wouldn’t have been able to achieve what he expected. Mandela realized that freedom in South Africa could have been long delayed perhaps even after his death. Mandela had a deep sense of justice not as ‘revenge’ but as ‘correcting the wrong’ and ‘empowering the victims’ through truth and appropriate compensation.

The South African transition or reconciliation was primarily an internal process and as a result it was healthy and sustainable. This is the primary lesson that Sri Lanka should learn. It was a learning process to the people to do away with prejudices, animosity and hatred. There are five summary lessons that perhaps Sri Lanka should try to emulate.

After a transition, and in this case, the end of the war in Sri Lanka, reconciliation should take priority. Economy is undoubtedly a supportive factor for reconciliation but not a primary mover.

Reconciliation is foremost a political matter for the leaders to resolve and for the people to support. It is best that the leaders of all sides should take the lead without waiting for another disaster of the kind. The primary responsibility, however, being on the part of the leaders of the majority community, as Nelson Mandela himself embodied.

Talk directly, as Nelson Mandela did with Willem de Klerk without neglecting all the stakeholders or their leaders. Justice is primary. Justice, however, does not mean revenge, but correcting the wrongs and empowering all the victims through truth and appropriate compensation.

Never resort to violence or intimidation, never again. This is the primary lesson of Mr. Nelson Mandela.