The uniqueness of Mandela

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

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.

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