Professor Brandon Hamber recalls the day in 1990 when he travelled to Nelson Mandela’s welcome home rally in Soweto and reflects on the relevance of Mandela’s vision of reconciliation to the people of Northern Ireland.
The day was one of unparalleled elation. I remember people walking for miles to see Mandela. As I neared the stadium in my old Toyota, people started to jump on the car exhausted from walking.
I arrived at the stadium with 6 people in the car, and 10 people on it and with a dented roof. But I didn’t care. It felt as if the world had shifted on its axis that day.
In many ways, everything has changed in South Africa. Racial legal apartheid is a historic relic. South Africa now has one of the most progressive constitutions and human rights frameworks in the world. Political power has changed irreversibly.
Since the end of apartheid the ANC government has built over 2 million houses, over 90% of people now have running water and 85% an electricity connection. This is remarkable given the low base the apartheid government left behind. Income in black households increased an average 169 percent over 10 years and over 35% of the middle class is now black.
But despite this progress, economically South Africa remains one of the most unequal places on earth. Unemployment is as high as 40%, and millions of black South Africans continue to live in poverty.
With these challenges, it is easy to say Nelson Mandela’s dream of a rainbow nation of equals has failed. But the challenges facing Mandela in 1994 should not be under-estimated. His government was confronted with the legacy of centuries of racism.
Communities were tearing themselves apart because of historic mistrust and state sanctioned violence. During the negotiations of 1990 to 1994, 15,000 people lost their lives in political violence.
In this context, reconciliation in Mandela’s terms was the difficult path to take. It meant quelling angry and fearful groups on all sides. Reconciliation was hardly an easy alternative to war – it was a strategy to change the course of history.
Many people will remember when Mandela donned the Springbok Rugby jersey. Often painted as a simple gesture to white South Africa about their inclusion in the new South Africa, it was in reality Mandela recasting a symbol long associated with Afrikaner nationalism.
Yes, he welcomed whites into the new nation but it resulted in the end of the old South Africa flag, the demise of white political power and the creation of a common flag for all. The new South Africa was clearly about give and take.
Mandela’s approach was to adopt peacemaking and reconciliation as ends in themselves, rather than tools to be used to further one’s political aims.
Through this, Mandela created a vision to aspire to: that all South Africans must work towards this dream no matter the odds – a sentiment now deeply entrenched.
In this sense, Mandela’s legacy is of great relevance to Northern Ireland. He has taught us that reconciliation is not a tolerance or basic acceptance of each other.
Rather, it is a real, hard fought and never-ending quest to improve society for all. It is a call to action, a quest to continually challenge ourselves to change our beliefs and practices.
As Mandela himself said: “You can never have an impact on society if you have not changed yourself. Great peacemakers are all people of integrity, of honesty, but humility”.
Mandela’s vision invites us all to rise above the histories that shape us so we can transform the future.
Professor Brandon Hamber from South Africa is Director of the INCORE (International Conflict Research Institute) at the University of Ulster. He has lived in Northern Ireland since 2001.