WASHINGTON, December 5, 2014 — Today marks the first anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s death. Mandela is a towering figure in world history. The name of the South African activist and first black president is better known than the system of apartheid that he helped destroy. He was so important to Twentieth Century history that the news of his death dominated the headlines around the world for weeks after his passing.
While all countries have leaders they continue to celebrate for generations after they are gone, Nelson Mandela is one of the few global leaders who will be remembered by the world for decades to come. Not only did Nelson Mandela stand up against the wrongs of apartheid and lead South Africans out of a dark era, he did it in a way that inspired the world to do better.
Apartheid, an era of South African history defined by the brutal oppression and torture of blacks, ended with leaders like Nelson Mandela rejecting the impulse to seek revenge and dominance over white South Africans. Mandela recognized there was no punishment, no form of restitution, and no means to prosecute the huge number of individuals responsible for what was done to black South Africans, so he and other black leaders chose to seek reconciliation instead.
Rather than tearing their nation apart along racial lines, South Africa’s leaders formed Truth and Reconciliation Commissions to afford victims a channel to peacefully express their grievances, face their victimizers, and learn what had happened to loved ones who had disappeared under apartheid rule. By doing so, they started a healing process that has helped South Africa do well in a region plagued by poor governance. The Mandela approach to resolving conflicts is unique and rarely pursued on a national scale, yet the lesson to be learned is an essential one.
When wrongdoings cannot be sufficiently undone or addressed through restitution, grievances can be addressed and conflicts resolved through the expression and public recognition of those grievances. Given the revolutionary forces driving change and unrest in the Middle East and other regions of the world, other societies will soon face the need to resolve past grievances and ongoing conflicts with rulers who did wrong. How those grievances and conflicts are addressed depends on what will satisfy the interests of the parties involved, but they should remember the history of South Africa and the work of Nelson Mandela when they try.