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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