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Learning from Mandela

GB Geo-Blog

Learning from Mandela

I can still remember the day twenty years ago when the South African government released Nelson Mandela from his 27-year imprisonment. It was a “springtime of peoples” around the world: the Berlin Wall had fallen, communism has crumbled in Eastern Europe, Chinese students had shown a courageous determination to reform their society, and now South Africa’s disgusting Apartheid regime was on its way down. Nelson Mandela’s freedom promised a new burst of global freedom.

In the years since 1990 many of the brightest hopes for global freedom have dimmed. Many of the former communist regimes, including Russia, have fallen into a renewed form of authoritarianism. The Chinese government has stubbornly resisted political reform. Across the Middle East and Central Asia extremism and violence have increased in scale and scope since 1990. South Africa, for all of its deep social and economic difficulties, is a notable exception.

Post-Apartheid South Africa has proven remarkably stable. It has provided the world with a model of reconciliation after decades of hatred and division. The new regime has resisted the urge to right all the wrongs of the past violently, and it has also embarked on a slow and determined path toward integration across races and classes. South Africa has also emerged from its international isolation as a state devoted to productive and non-threatening relations with counterparts near and far. The closure of South Africa’s former nuclear weapons program is a model for non-proliferation at a time when other states are dangerously moving in the other direction.

Nelson Mandela made much of this happen. He has self-consciously acted as a bridge between races and countries. He has championed slow, serious, and peaceful reform and he has denounced extremes on all sides. Most of all, he has carried himself with an evident dignity that shames those around him who might otherwise practice hatred and demagoguery. Never underestimate the power of example and the sting of shame, especially in international relations.

More than anyone else since 1990, Mandela has symbolized patience, diplomacy, and humanity. He proves that individuals still matter enormously. He leads us to ask why his sort of statesmanship has been so rare in recent years. Where are the Mandelas of the Middle East, Central Asia, or even the United States and Western Europe?

The opinions expressed in this blog are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of either Global Brief or the Glendon School of Public and International Affairs.


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