Slugger O'Toole

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“Do you know what Nelson Mandela’s jailers used to call him?”

Fri 6 December 2013, 5:21am

Do you know what Nelson Mandela’s jailers used to call him, towards the later stages of his incarceration? They called him, “Mr. Mandela”.

Of the many stories and reports that illustrate the extent to which this great man was a leader, a statesman, and, not least, someone who transcended his tribe – without ever abandoning it – to effectively make a new nation out of his imagination and moral integrity, that’s my favorite.

My old friend Chuck Richardson explained Nelson Mandela to me many years ago, using this simple anecdote. Chuck, back then, was successfully operationalizing the Spirit of Enniskillen Trust, a leadership program born out of Senator Gordon Wilson’s vision to commemorate the memory of his daughter Marie, by establishing a safe space for young adults from across Northern Ireland to meet and engage without shirking the difficult and emotionally loaded conversations that he rightly identified as dangerously absent.

Mr. Wilson had something very profound, and very human, in common with Mr. Mandela. He knew that reconciliation required much more than recognizing the humanity in your neighbor, regardless of their tribal allegiances, in an abstract, formal, or polite manner. Real reconciliation required and demanded something challenging: Appreciating how your neighbour has come to be so powerfully and maybe defensively invested in their political beliefs, irrespective of how repulsive and even threatening you may consider their positions. Bonkers, obnoxious, irrational, and harmful a neighbour’s beliefs and politics may be. But dammit, they are your neighbor, so you owe them your curiosity and engagement, and ultimately, no little amount of hard swallowing and studied toleration.

The understanding Mandela and Wilson shared, I think, was that politics cannot simply be a debate. And reconciliation – something both men dedicated the later parts of their lives to facilitating – cannot even begin while politics is used only as an extension of the battlefield, a ceaseless attempt to take or defend physical space; politics much be used to create space, the space to engage, to listen, to share, to debate, yes, but ultimately to build something in common.

Both men knew that tribalism was a race to the bottom – something South Africa’s neighbor, Zimbabwe, has long since discovered – and that the only worthy victory available to any sect, group, party, or whomever, would be a peaceful society where people pursued, if not, yet, a shared allegiance, then at least some sense of healthy curiosity in each other; a culture less jealous and suspicious, and one more defined by a willingness of its citizens to take responsibility for exploring and understanding the odd routines and rituals and deeply ingrained ties that their neighbors at times define themselves by – especially when they’re not familiar.

Mandela and Wilson both knew that a politics build on revenge and a battle-a-day attempts to destroy a neighbour’s traditions, regardless of how tied up such practices may have been with painful histories and antagonistic symbolism, was the path to ruin for everyone.

They shared something else, of course. Gordon Wilson’s pursuit of reconciliation emerged from the rubble he found himself and his daughter Marie buried under following the IRA’s bombing of Enniskillen’s Remembrance Sunday commemoration. Marie spent her last few moments being reassured by her father that help was on the way. But Gordon Wilson couldn’t save his daughter. Marie died holding her dad’s hand. Instead, Mr. Wilson demonstrated, like Nelson Mandela, what a response to insufferable emotional pain and insult could look like – and what a reconciliation process could be built on.

The determination of Mandela and Gordon Wilson to reject the temptation to become consumed by bitterness towards their neighbours, and to pursue, instead, deeper relationships with people both men recognized not as enemies but as their fellow countrymen and women, was, and remains, the only example of patriotism worth the name you’ll find in South Africa or in Ireland.

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Comments (19)

  1. Shibboleth (profile) says:

    Didn’t he plead guilty of numerous violent crimes which led to his incarceration?
    Didn’t Ed Curran say that Nelson Mandela told Republicans in 2000 to hold on to their arms as long as possible in order to get their wish list?
    http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/opinion/columnists/ed-curran/steely-nelson-mandela-was-against-ira-decommissioning-29384673.html

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  2. Mick Fealty (profile) says:

    Certainly that’s the point at which there’s a significant departure within the analogy. But it also points to why Mandela’s story makes up such powerful narrative.

    The political switch is made because Mandela force is fixed on agreeing with de Klerk that having another long futile war would not change the long term outcome. And that shorter term outcome arises out Mandela’s (and De Klerk’s) appreciation of the other as a fair and honest dealer.

    I’m not sure that there was too close a reading by Mandela of the NI situation other than a degree of loyalty to former anti colonialist comrades, though I stand to be corrected on that.

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  3. Son of Strongbow (profile) says:

    I suspect there is little doubt that Nelson Mandela’s natural sympathies lay with nationalists.

    However it is a perversion of Mandela’s legacy for Shinners to claim him as “our friend” (quote: Martin McGuinness). What allowed Mandela to transcend his position as the leader of the black majority in South Africa to become the person that is so admired today was his concentration on genuine reconciliation rather than giving in to bitterness and angry partisanship.

    If Mandela had intrigued to undermine his partner in change, de Klerk, as Sinn Fein did with Trimble, he would certainly still have become South African President, but of a very different South Africa, one that would have been riven with violence and factionalism.

    He would probably now be remembered in the same way as we recall the contribution of the likes of Thabo Mbeki.

    Whilst Sinn Fein indulged in the lies and dishonesty of decommissioning, Stormongate, the Northern Bank etc Mandela embraced the Springboks, the supreme totem of white South Africa.

    However I expect we’ll see and hear various Shinners clutching at Mandela’s coattails hoping to bask in a little reflected glory.

    Perhaps Gerry will soon be regaling us with stories of sitting around the HMP Maze campfire with the ‘hunger strikers’, ‘blanket’ and ‘hooded’ men singing Nkosi Sikelel ‘iAfrica (leaving out the Die Stem van Suid-Afrika bits of course)?

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  4. megatron (profile) says:

    “Bonkers, obnoxious, irrational, and harmful a neighbour’s beliefs and politics may be. But dammit, they are your neighbor, so you owe them your curiosity and engagement, and ultimately, no little amount of hard swallowing and studied toleration.”

    Great stuff Ruairí. Mick you are correct about the switch – and to link back to the SF thread yesterday Martin’s pitch in my opinion should be Dev / FF = Mandela and they knew when to sue for peace and when to fight.

    Unforuntately everyone has to keep up the agreed charade that political violence is never justified and gloss over it when it comes to Mandela (and FF and FG).

    Unbelievable that they get away with it but if it suits a media objective it is amazing what you can get away with.

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  5. Barnshee (profile) says:

    “Unforuntately everyone has to keep up the agreed charade that political violence is never justified and gloss over it when it comes to Mandela (and FF and FG).”

    “Unfortunately”- if its a ” charade that political violence is never justified and gloss over it ” it ifollows that all “political violence” can be claimed as “justified” or is just some ( the bit youn agree with) “justified”

    “it is amazing what you can get away with.”

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  6. megatron (profile) says:

    Barnshee

    How about we agree it is sometimes justified and have a proper debate about each case?

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  7. carl marks (profile) says:

    SOS
    If Mandela had intrigued to undermine his partner in change, de Klerk, as Sinn Fein did with Trimble,

    And here was the rest of the world thinking that Trimble was undermined by unionists both inside his own party and the DUP, but of course it was SF’s fault for expecting him to honour his obligations!
    Now like it or lump (not to fond of it myself) but SF can reasonably claim Mandala as their friend, not only did SF express Solidarity with the ANC at every opportunity there are claims that the IRA assisted Umkhonto we Sizwe.
    It is also likely that the ANC seen parallels between SA and NI so equally likely that they would regard SF as perhaps the only party in Europe that really understood their position and their struggle.

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  8. Barnshee (profile) says:

    “How about we agree it is sometimes justified and have a proper debate about each case?”

    If there is need for a debate –then already it shows that a division of opinion has already occurred- If violence for any one political cause is justified then you cannot object when counter violence occurs.

    Shankill bomb= Greysteel massacre

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  9. carl marks (profile) says:

    Barnshee

    The problem with that is it justifies all violence, since everybody who engages in violence tends to say “they had it coming” and throws out a bit of whataboutry to prove their case.
    Your example re Shankill bomb = Greysteel is too simplistic as both had no possible justification, instead compare the Nazi death camps to the French

    Resistance, both aspects of political violence but no one (no sane person) would say they morally equal.
    Political violence (that includes wars by sovereign states, always political) must be looked at in a case by case fashion.
    This is something we already do here; we can look back at our past and watch the different reactions (or lack off) inside the two main camps to massacres depending on who carried them out.

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  10. Ulick (profile) says:

    “Do you know what Nelson Mandela’s jailers used to call him, towards the later stages of his incarceration? They called him, “Mr. Mandela”.”

    Maybe that was kind of like Mick’s RUC Guide to Surviving the Conflict in South Armagh mentioned on another thread – they didn’t want to provoke him for fear of a bullet in the back of the head. While we’re on the subject, do you know what Thatcher called him:

    “that grubby little terrorist”

    Brendan Behan is having the last laugh on us all.

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  11. Barnshee (profile) says:

    CM

    “Nazi death camps to the French Resistance, both aspects of political violence”

    French Resistance ? —no such animal

    http://www.sfgate.com/news/article/The-French-Resistance-myth-3160032.php

    The compare is German violence- massive counter violence -(mostly Russian regardless of John Wayne)

    “Shankill bomb = Greysteel is too simplistic as both had no possible justification” –

    If so then you have to reel back the tit for tat thru the years—- to arrive where?

    Factions justified their actions as “political” They are the arbiters– The right to dissent cannot be “granted ” selectively— political violence legitimises politically violent reaction.
    .

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  12. carl marks (profile) says:

    French Resistance ? —no such animal

    ok chang it to the soviet partisans then, the point stands!

    “Shankill bomb = Greysteel is too simplistic as both had no possible justification” –

    If so then you have to reel back the tit for tat thru the years—- to arrive where?”

    My point exactly, by your terms no violence is excusable or all violence is excusable, this is of course incorrect.
    This is nothing new in criminal law different charges and sentences are used according to the level of violence and the circumstances.
    Both Shankill and Greysteel where wrong in every way , I can’t see the grounds for arguing otherwise in both cases innocent people were murdered for being in the wrong place at the wrong time; end of!
    Look at Palestine and Israel, there is political violence on both sides but for some the line is: they have the right to protect themselves from terrorism, while others say: they are fighting to get back the land and water stolen from them.
    And the ANC most of the world seen freedom fighters some seen terrorists!

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  13. Barnshee (profile) says:

    “no violence is excusable or all violence is excusable, this is of course incorrect.”

    Only in you eyes- Both sides in the Palestinian/Israel regard themselves as “right” and regard violence as acceptable – the respective abilities to inflict violence are however seriously unbalanced in favour of Israel

    Amore even “balance” might have secured the Palestinians

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  14. Barney (profile) says:

    Son of Strongbow wrote

    “I suspect there is little doubt that Nelson Mandela’s natural sympathies lay with nationalists.”

    That may have something to do with Unionist death squads breaking UN sanctions and supplying secret British military technology to a racist regime in exchange for weapons.

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  15. megatron (profile) says:

    Barnshee,

    I am genuinely confused. Do you submit that there are NO circumstances where political violence is justified?

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  16. qwerty12345 (profile) says:

    When one reads the opinion of some Unionist posters here and the less restrained comment polluting Facebook via the loyalist hate sites, all one can do is feel sad.

    I listened to a documentary about Mandela at 9 pm on Radio 4 and some of the news coverage since and what is most striking are some of the comments from Mandela’s former political adversaries like De Klerk and Pik Botha.

    They have no problem recognising the stature of Mandela and how he quite possibly saved South Africa from the abyss, particularly around the time of the murder of Chris Hani. Compare and contrast with the vitriol being spewed by some sections here.

    It’s clear from these reactions and the last year that WE are still at war. Still stuck back in the 80s or before.

    Oh that WE collectively were blessed with the generosity of spirit that Mandela seemed to have in abundance, maybe there might be some hope for us.

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  17. RosesInTheDark (profile) says:

    “Whilst Sinn Fein indulged in the lies and dishonesty of decommissioning, Stormongate, the Northern Bank etc Mandela embraced the Springboks, the supreme totem of white South Africa”

    Son of Strongbow,

    Are you forgetting that SF embraced Stormont the Supreme totem of Protestant/Unionist Northern Ireland

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  18. Alan N/Ards (profile) says:

    It’s a shame that the island of Ireland hasn’t got a leader of Nelson Mandela’s stature.

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  19. tuatha (profile) says:

    Given that they were mostly Afrikaaners, what they called him was Geeherte, unheard of for a black, meaning “respected Sir”.

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