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Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Mandela: more earthly than heavenly

Masi Noor, a psychologist researching forgiveness, considers the nature of  Nelson Mandela’s main achievement and argues that it is something to which we can all aspire.

Love your enemy? Easier said than done.
Photo: World Economic Forum
Death unites people. Mandela’s departure has certainly done so. In the wake of the storm of the public messages, obituaries, tweets and blogs I wonder though, if something profound may be missing and potentially trivialising of Mandela’s character and legacy.

The dominant theme is one of veneration. This is unsurprising given Mandela’s achievements. But to canonise him as a super-human is to close the door to him as a source of inspiration to us and in the realm of the small and the ordinary. History is full of such deified Mandelas. Sometimes they are called Buddha, Jesus, Einstein, Mary, Mohammed or Maslow. Whatever the name, they remain inaccessible to most of us, so that their lifetime achievements eventually dissolve into mystery. The possibility of emulation becomes extinct.  This would be tragically counter-Mandelan.

By his own admission, Mandela never had an epiphany moment. Instead, he was ordinary, struggled to sustain romantic love and to find ways to remain human within Apartheid’s dehumanising context (and almost 30 years in prison). At times he was angry, stubborn, fragile and unsuccessful in his pursuits of his academic studies. At other times, he was a shrewd strategist who knew when to boycott, when to use threat of militancy and when to offer personal forgiveness. And sometimes he got all of them wrong. I’d suggest that this not only made him the Mandela we idolise, but more importantly someone we can emulate.
Perhaps the most important skill in Mandela’s behavioural repertoire was to remain embedded in what is termed ‘Ubuntu’. This is an ethic that originated in South Africa and serves as a reminder that my humanity is caught up in yours. Described in Desmond Tutu’s words, ‘”Ubuntu” is not, “I think therefore I am.” It says rather: “I am a human because I belong. I participate. I share.” In essence, I am only because you are’. When we experience injustice, loss and trauma, there is a tendency in us to go through a process of disconnection. We disconnect from the perpetrator, from potential sources of social support and, importantly, from ourselves, our core values and from the person we used to be. Ubuntu is the antidote to such destructive disconnection. It encourages us to remain engaged.

Mandela practised Ubuntu to restore damaged relations. Seeking a meeting with Margaret Thatcher (who had considered the ANC a ‘terrorist organisation’), only months after his release was a prime example. This was not only illustration of skilful diplomacy but it also showed Mandela seeking common ground and shared humanity rather than a fight. An even bigger effect of Ubuntu on Mandela was shown in his ability to divert the strong draw towards civil war and chaos in South Africa. After his release a measure of  collective healing came through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The transaction of public honesty in return for amnesty, as painful as it was, was consistent with his commitment to Ubuntu.

As a psychologist, I have studied the concept of forgiveness in contexts of ethno-political violence over the last 10 years. I have found that, as well as avoidance and revenge, forgiveness is often a very effective strategy to deal with conflict and its legacy. Like the other strategies, forgiveness offers opportunities and risks. Mandela was among the first statesmen in contemporary times who used forgiveness as a tool to bring to light the impact of Apartheid and at the same time, to prevent future similar collective catastrophes in South Africa. Such achievements are indeed extraordinary and to manage this undoubtedly took great political skills. But adoration of the accomplishments alone would only dim the light necessary to see the person behind such achievements.   

Amid the sadness of Mandela’s death, a source of consolation for me has been that Mandela’s story has touched most people on this planet.  What makes a story powerful is that we identify with its protagonist and somewhere secretly we want to become that protagonist. This opens the opportunity that we can all imagine becoming and acting like Mandela. In my work I have met Mandela-like real people across many conflict regions. They have transformed their desire for revenge into a reflective search for something larger, they have analysed instead of making accusations, they have looked beyond themselves, and they have returned to being human, just as Mandela did and just as he would have liked them to do.

Dr Masi Noor has recently developed a skills-based Forgiveness Toolbox ( based on the first-hand accounts of victims and perpetrators of political violence. The Toolbox was developed in collaboration with the Forgiveness Project which uses real-life stories to explore the concept of forgiveness ( You can contact Dr Noor, on

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