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Monday, 9 December 2013

Madiba's magic

 Following the death of Nelson Mandela Angela Gilchrist reflects on her time as a young journalist in South Africa and the process of national reconciliation.

Soweto 1976. A long road back.
Photo: Soundprint Media
South Africa had reached one of its most defining moments in history, the 1976 Soweto Uprising. Before then I hadn’t taken much notice of the name Mandela. I had fallen into journalism as a skinny 19-year-old who still had orthodontic bands on her teeth and little knowledge of the world. I had lived in the safety of the 'white' suburbs on the eastern edge of Johannesburg. But in Soweto I saw violence and brutality that I can never forget and it was then that my political consciousness began to sharpen.

The African National Congress was banned and scores were detained without charge or trial. I didn't then even know what Mandela looked like as no images were available. He was spoken about in whispers and disparaged as a 'communist terrorist'. (Communism included any notion of racial equality). It wasn't possible to have access to his thoughts without going across borders. South Africa was without television until just five months before Soweto erupted. And once it had arrived, one of its main functions was to sell apartheid as a necessary tool for the salvation of the country. Mandela was described as an agitator and someone whose detention was necessary for our safety. He remained faceless, dangerous and disparaged.

South Africans thus had access to a limited number of opinions, debate was restricted, and views became deeply polarised. When conversation did take place about the matters of the day, it was often ill-informed and based on hearsay or propaganda. Being young, female and curious about the country's political peculiarities, represented a tricky set of challenges. People, men usually, would tell me that I was too young to understand or that I ought not to be bothering my pretty head about such things. My open support of racial equality meant that I was sometimes shunned and branded as a communist.
One of my earliest discomforts was being a witness to a curfew that would keep the streets 'white by night'. A siren would go off at around sunset and black people were expected to vanish. That's if they were lucky enough to come by a pass that would enable them to work in the city in the first place. Apartheid laws ensured that the majority of South Africans were stripped of their citizenship rights and forced to live in separate homelands or 'bantustans' where it was often impossible for them to support themselves or their families.

To ask how we got from that point to the largely peaceful democratic South Africa of today, will necessitate a belief in miracles. Sometimes, when I return to the country now, It is almost with a sense of disbelief that I see the races rubbing along together as if it had always been the case. In the immediate aftermath of Mandela's death, it was heartwarming to see black and white mourning together for a man universally loved.

But while much has been said about Mandela’s policy of reconciliation, little has been said about his communication skills or how it was that he began to get detractors on his side. Mandela wasn't necessarily a brilliant orator, relying instead on the justness of his cause.  But he could be persuasive and understood something vital: he realised the power of communication and what happens when you talk respectfully to those with whom you disagree. ‘You have to work with your enemy’ he said, ‘then he becomes your partner'. We had heard something similar before throughout history but Mandela intuitively knew how to practise long held wisdoms. And he demonstrated their practical utility by applying them to real and often very difficult situations.

Mandela knew that when people start talking, they realise they may have more in common than was previously thought. It became clear that he developed a measure of genuine respect for the last white president, FW de Klerk, who had agreed to his release in 1990. Mandela wasn’t afraid to praise de Klerk (despite the risks with his own constituency), and they set the country on a new course. Mandela believed that by behaving honourably to those who didn't necessarily deserve it, it is possible to influence them to behave better than they otherwise would.

Mandela also understood that claiming the hearts and minds of ordinary citizens was essential. It was fortuitous that South Africa won the rugby World Cup on home turf just months after he became president. When Mandela donned a Springbok jersey and walked onto the field to congratulate the captain, Francois Pienaar, not only was he making a sporting gesture, but reaching deep into the heart of white South Africa. Implicit in his gesture was a reassurance that he would value the things that whites held dear and seek to accommodate their interests, alongside others.

If I've learned one thing from Mandela's remarkable life, it is that miracles can happen. Most especially, miracles can and do happen when people genuinely seek to understand one another. If we enter debates with heartfelt curiosity about the position of others, it's a strange paradox that our agenda often falls away as we begin to identify a greater good. I’m not saying it’s easy. Quite the contrary when we hold views passionately. Research shows that people think they're right even when it's not rational. But Mandela's example shows that we needn't necessarily agree, and can hold to many diverse opinions provided that certain central principles are commonly held. The South African constitution that came into being in 1994 was largely praised as one of the most liberal and diverse in the world. Forgiveness is a triumph not only of compassion, but also of political skill. When some may be ready to forgive, others may hold onto the wish for revenge.

I hope never again to live in a situation where freedom and information are compromised. We should be passionate about freedom of speech and rejoice in a free flow of debate. Whenever we choose to engage with someone with whom we might profoundly disagree, we should celebrate the fact that we are able to do so. It's a curious thing that when we give up on being right and seek instead to understand, people often begin to share viewpoints. You could call this 'Madiba's Magic' or you could just say its common sense. Whatever it is, Mandela had it in abundance.

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