Saturday, August 23, 2014
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The uniqueness of Mandela

The photos of a frail Nelson Mandela hospitalized again remind me of the many times, in many countries, I've heard people say, "If only we had a Mandela."

The uniqueness of Mandela

Former South African President Nelson Mandela in 2007 in Johannesburg.
Former South African President Nelson Mandela in 2007 in Johannesburg. AP

The photos of a frail Nelson Mandela hospitalized again remind me of the many times, in many countries, I’ve heard people say, “If only we had a Mandela.”

Mandela’s genius was his ability to forgive, and a charisma that let him convince his black countrymen to do likewise, and convinced his white countrymen that he meant what he said. Not all South Africans believed him, but – at least in his lifetime - they accepted his approach.

This combination – charisma and a strategic willingness to forgive one’s ethnic oppressors – is so rarely found among leaders of other troubled countries as to be almost unique to Mandela. To grasp the full significance of this man you only need to look at states that desperately need a Mandela but aren’t lucky enough to have one – especially, but not only, in the Middle East.

Just imagine if there had been an Iraqi Mandela, a leader from the Shiite majority willing to work with, if not fully forgive the Sunni minority that had oppressed his co-religionists for decades. That country might now be knitting together and fully developing its oil riches. Instead, Iraq’s Shiite leadership – paranoid and vengeful – is squeezing a frightened and angry Sunni minority back into sectarian war.

If there were a Palestinian leader with the charisma and credibility and vision to sign off on two states; if there were a Syrian opposition leader with the courage and credibility to convince Bashar al Assad’s Alawite sect that his exit wouldn’t lead to their expulsion; if Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe had made a deal with white farmers instead of kicking them out and bankrupting his country; if, if, if, but the absence of such visionaries in the Middle East, Africa and elsewhere, only proves the uniqueness of Mandela.

In tribal cultures forgiveness is too often seen as weakness, and seeking justice too often confused with wreaking vengeance. Mandela understood that such an approach was a ticket to disaster. Sadly, Mandela-ism has yet to take root in the wider world.

Trudy Rubin Inquirer Opinion Columnist
About this blog

Trudy Rubin’s Worldview column runs on Thursdays and Sundays. In 2009-2011 she has made four lengthy trips to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Over the past seven years, she visited Iraq eleven times, and also wrote from Iran, Israel, the West Bank, Gaza, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, China, and South Korea.

She is the author of Willful Blindness: the Bush Administration and Iraq, a book of her columns from 2002-2004. In 2001 she was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in commentary and in 2008 she was awarded the Edward Weintal prize for international reporting. In 2010 she won the Arthur Ross award for international commentary from the Academy of American Diplomacy.

Reach Trudy at trubin@phillynews.com.

Trudy Rubin Inquirer Opinion Columnist
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