Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 25 October 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Nelson Mandela heals even in death as best of enemies shake on it

Nelson Mandela
Nelson Mandela

When a group of English primary school children were once asked by a TV researcher who their favourite Bible characters were, several included Nelson Mandela in their lists.

Few people receive that sort of celebrity within their own lifetime and gaining it means that people are imprinting their own messages on your career.

A leading unionist recently told me that he believed Mandela (right) had turned his back on violence while in prison and embraced the path of dialogue.

Sinn Feiners are more likely to remember his imprisonment for sabotage and cite him as evidence that political violence is a fitting school for statecraft.

Many people want to find a place for Mandela in their own sacred narratives.

The reality is more complex. Nelson Mandela supported violence when legitimate politics was closed to him by a regime that denied him the vote, suppressed all protest and assassinated its opponents.

He then continued to support it until democratic elections were agreed. He could have been released from prison years earlier if he had met the apartheid government's requirement that he first disown the use of violence to undermine its rule.

At the same time, once he was released from prison without precondition, he moved on. His remarkable act of forgiveness to people – including both politicians and actual jailers and police officers who had held him captive – helped unite the nation.

His memorial and funeral ceremonies may also have a healing effect. Leaders he had criticised attended. Tony Blair, whom he derided as "the United States foreign minister", was there to praise him.

George W Bush – dubbed by Madiba "the president who couldn't think" – was filmed high-fiving it with ANC activists.

Perhaps the most significant act of reconciliation may be that handshake between Raul Castro, the Cuban premier, and Barack Obama.

Relations between Cuba and the US have been hostile for a century. Yet both countries are friends of South Africa and both leaders claim Mandela as a political inspiration.

There was, 60 years ago, a private handshake between Castro's brother, Fidel, and US President Jimmy Carter, at a UN meeting, but it wasn't built on.

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