Military helicopters fly past the new statue of Nelson Mandela at the Union Buildings in Pretoria. With typical modesty Madiba was reluctant to be thought of in saintly terms, says the writer. Photo: Chris Collingridge

Africa does make a contribution to the spirit of reconciliation, writes James Kariuki.


A month after Nelson Mandela’s release from prison, Catholic Archbishop Lawrence Henry of Cape Town triggered an outcry in the South African Catholic community by giving Holy Communion to the political icon.

To the religious community, the act verged on sacrilege to the extent that Mandela was not, and had never been, a Roman Catholic.

Somehow the issue faded away afterwards without much further ado.

Late in Mandela’s life, the news media upstaged Archbishop Henry by making an effort to tag Mandela with the title of saint, to which he strenuously objected.

Anglican Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu also resisted the saint label for his close friend, maintaining that Madiba merely approximated Christ-like attributes such as forgiving his tormentors.

That was a high tribute indeed coming from a high-profile clergyman.

Mandela himself insisted he was an ordinary mortal. As he put it, “I am not a saint, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.”

For emphasis, he added that when he finally got to heaven, the first thing he would do was look around for a local branch of the ANC and sign up for membership.

That he was destined for heaven was not at issue.

The point was that he was committed to political pragmatism, even in the hereafter.

Why would Madiba’s contemporaries seek to smother him with excessive veneration, to canonise him?

Mandela’s spectacular secular achievement was in forgiving his tormentors, those who had unjustly imprisoned him for 27 years.

Upon release, he extended a hand of friendship to his detractors and engaged in activities that some regarded as “appeasement”.

He invited his white prison guard to his presidential inauguration. During the 1995 Rugby World Cup, he donned the green jersey of the South African national rugby team, regarded as a key symbol of Afrikaner nationalism.

Mandela even had tea with Betsy Verwoerd, the unrepentant widow of the major architect of apartheid, Hendrik F Verwoerd.

Whether prompted by political pragmatism or personal magnanimity, Mandela’s lasting gift to South Africa was in transcending the race issue. By securing especially the trust of non-blacks, he transformed into a symbol of homogeneous multiracialism, which South Africa never was.

He became psychological cement, a catalyst who would bind together the country’s racial diversity and sustain that “bond” through the peaceful but challenging metamorphosis from the ranks of the world’s “skunk” to a vibrant democracy.

In South Africa’s racial history, Mandela, a “terrorist” turned peacemonger, was a supernatural paradox, a miracle, for which South Africans were collectively grateful. Hence the temptation to confer reverence upon Madiba.

A question arises: Was Mandela’s “rare gift to his country” attributable to his person, being a South African or due to his Africanity? We propose that the instinct to forgive your enemy is an “African thing”; it is wired into our DNA.

This is not to dismiss the possibility that Mandela’s post-prison public image could have been contrived political posturing from the head, not the heart. Nor is it to suggest that Africans are by nature pacifists; we know better. We here talk only of Africans’ propensity to forgive their nemeses.

In 1967 Nigeria exploded into one of modern Africa’s most lamentable conflicts: the Nigeria-Biafra War. It was a complex war in which Nigeria fought for national sovereignty and territorial integrity and against secession.

For Biafra it was a war of two nations over sovereignty lost by force. Biafrans were intent on recapturing their self-determination because they had never given their “consent of the governed” to federal Nigeria.

But something went terribly wrong with the military venture. What started off as a Nigerian civil war quickly transformed into a magnet for Cold War contestants: Britain, France, the US, USSR, China and Portugal.

In this sense, it became a world war in microcosm. In addition to dividing up Africa, the Nigeria-Biafra War became a catastrophe of major proportions that sucked global actors deeply into African affairs.

The war was also agonising due to its staggering excesses. It was a genocidal undertaking in which innocent civilians were systematically killed for no apparent military purposes.

Even women and children were deliberately starved by a federal Nigeria’s airtight food and economic blockade.

Finally, for good measure, the effects of the war were telecast around the world to dramatise a scale of savagery that made a mockery of the stated objectives of the war. Indeed in his recent book, There Was a Country, Chinua Achebe concluded that “the Nigeria-Biafra War was arguably the most televised conflict in history”.

Viewed this way, the Biafra War was also a media war.

Yet, despite its excesses, pitfalls and shortcomings, there was something remarkably humane and dignified about how the Biafra War ended.

From the outset, the Nigerian-commander-in-chief, Yakubu Gowon, had insisted that the secessionist Igbo were not enemies of federal Nigeria, “they are our brothers”. In the course of the war, however, Gowon occasionally slipped.

Brothers do not impose food and economic blockades on each other, much less on women and children. On balance, however, General Gowon did manifest unmitigated saint-like magnanimity, especially in victory.

In defeat, the Igbo and the outside world, for sound and legitimate reasons, expected unrestrained massacres to follow, but none came. Gowon declared that there were neither winners nor vanquished in the conflict. In addition to refraining from proclaiming a winner, federal Nigeria chose to declare a general amnesty.

Finally, Nigeria opted not to conduct Nuremberg-type trials or to award victors’ medals of valour to the federal soldiers. In short, there were “no genocide, no proscription, no settling of vendettas, and no reprisals of any kind”.

In this sense, the Nigerian-Biafra War outshone its American and Spanish predecessors by averting additional future war hatred. In grief, Nigeria set high standards indeed for the world to aspire to in future such conflicts.

In resorting to reconciliation at the collapse of apartheid 20 years after the Nigeria-Biafra war, was Mandela’s a separate and isolated case in modern African history? This question prompts another: what do South Africa, Zimbabwe and Kenya have in common?

All are in black Africa and were once European colonies. Each was home to a sizeable presence of white settlers and independence for each involved bloodshed.

Less publicised of the trio is that, when the time came, they all sought to consummate their freedom in the spirit of reconciliation.

In the early 1960s, Kenya’s Jomo Kenyatta emerged from colonial imprisonment urging his white tormentors to stay.

As history would affirm in years to come, those colonisers had committed horrifying human rights abuses against Kenyatta’s people. Yet, for assurance that black-ruled Kenya would be sweet home for them, Kenyatta wrote a book clearly aimed at calming their nerves.

Hence the startling title of his popular book, Suffering Without Bitterness (1968). Some black diehards considered the book and its title as verging on “appeasement”.

Twenty years after Kenya’s independence and a decade before apartheid crumbled, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe followed a strikingly similar path to Kenyatta’s.

Lest history forgets, in 1981 Mugabe was shortlisted for the Nobel Peace Prize for his initial enthusiasm for racial reconciliation following his country’s transition from white-ruled Rhodesia to majority-ruled Zimbabwe.

As the country’s first president, Mugabe stated, “Our people, young and old, men and women, black and white, living and dead, are, on this occasion, being brought together in a new form of national unity that makes them all Zimbabweans.”

In other words: let racist bygones be bygones.

Ian Smith, that late white settler antithesis to African nationalism in all its forms and the man behind the savage Rhodesian War that cost 30 000 lives, remained free and un-tormented in majority-ruled Zimbabwe.

In fact, Smith became a member of parliament in Mugabe’s black government and its harshest critic.

Mandela, like his predecessors in Kenyatta and Mugabe, absorbed horrific victimisation at the hands of their colonial tormentors.

Yet, as victors, they responded uniformly by offering reconciliation as the way forward.

With minor variations, the same can be said of victorious federal Nigerians.

This kind of generosity of spirit is alien in the case of say, Israel, relative to its Arab neighbours or Algeria vis-a-vis France in the post-colonial era.

Even in the US, traces of “bad feelings” are still evident among the vanquished Southerners after all these years since the American Civil War.

Hence our contention in this essay that, more than most others, forgiveness is as familiar and apparent in black African cultures as the tropical sun.

After the Nigeria-Biafra War, a European author of note stated, “When history takes a longer view of Nigeria’s war it will be shown that, while the black man has little to teach us about making war, he has a real contribution to offer in making peace.”

For brokering the peaceful negotiations for termination of apartheid, Mandela dovetails cleanly into this club of champions of African peacemaking.


* Kariuki is professor (emeritus) of International Relations, an independent writer and a columnist.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.

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