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Mandela symbolised reconciliation

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, Madiba, honorary doctor of Leiden university, was one of the iconic politicians of the late twentieth century. Mandela has died at the age of 95. Analysis by Robert Ross, Professor in African history.

Peaceful political transition

He had charm, presence and the personal skills of a politician in abundance, even though he was stilted as a public speaker. But behind this there were serious achievements. He probably had a greater part than any other single individual in bringing about the relatively peaceful political transition in South Africa at the end of apartheid. It had been widely feared that the country would implode in political violence and economic chaos as white rule reached a contested end. This did not happen, and, while there were many who played a major role in this, during the tortuous negotiations and thereafter, Mandela was above all the public face of reconciliation, certainly once he had been elected president. He was able to provide a framework of confidence within which the practical aspects of the creation of a new governmental structures and new ways of running the economy could be worked out.

South African miracle

Mandela’s life divides into three periods. Before 1963 he was a fiery, revolutionary politician, perhaps lacking the substance that he later achieved. The period from 1963 to 1990 he spent in gaol, initially on Robben Island. Much has been written about the fact that this experience did not embitter him, but rather gave him the conviction necessary to achieve a relatively smooth transition to power. This is part of the “South African miracle” discourse.

The court of the Thembu King

Nevertheless, behind this are two aspects of his personal development, before he was sent to the island, which made this disposition more likely, even though his ideas were honed in the incessant debates in prison and by the intense, and increasingly personal, contact with white warders. These were, first, his upbringing in the Transkei, as a Thembu aristocrat. He spent much of his youth at the court of the Thembu King, observing how justice was dispensed in what was still a functioning customary legal system. The Thembu courts place their emphasis on achieving a political settlement of disputes, so as not to threaten tribal unity. It was a lesson that could be extended to cover the entire country.

Legal continuity

Secondly, Mandela was by training and practice a lawyer within the Western system of the South African state. His main work was to defend those who had fallen foul of the apartheid system, or of their employers. But out of this came an absolute conviction that legal continuity and civil liberties had to be maintained, or restored, no matter how dramatic the political changes.

Icon of freedom

Mandela was man with a clear sense of his own importance, and a total lack of modesty, false or otherwise. He was also one of the rare individuals for whom this attitude seems justified. It is rare for Leiden to award an honorary doctorate to someone who as a student had been expelled from his own university. Mandela was honoured as an icon of freedom, and for furthering the cause of Leiden University’s motto, libertatis praesidium. The prestige accrued to the University, much more than to the new doctor.

(6 december 2013)

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