By R S Perinbanayagam –
One of the ways of resolving long-standing conflicts can be termed as as presentism and futurism. In deploying this strategy one focuses only on what his happening now and what is available on the ground and in futurism one focuses on what can be done to secure a better set of circumstances than what had been available in the past. In pursuing these two strategies, the first step is to ignore, however painful it had been, the past and start anew and constitute systems of relationships and programs that will ensure a relatively congenial and efficient functioning of the social order in the future.
This in fact was the strategy that Nelson Mandela adopted in South Africa, not only after he became president but even before that. In the beginning he favored a nonviolent approach in the fight against apartheid. He soon abandoned such a strategy, after certain events that had transpired, and opted for an armed struggle. Once he found out that that was not going to be fruitful he returned to the strategy of negotiating with the state as the intelligent and prudent and efficient way of achieving freedom for the black and brown people of South Africa. Negotiating for a non-apartheid South Africa meant that one underplays all the injustices and cruelties of the past, leaving that to future historians, and seek to make fundamental changes in the current political structure so that the people who are living now and those who will live in the future are served well. It does not mean forgiving or forgetting the wrongs done in the distant or immediate past but focusing on “what is to be done” now so that the future can be better served. It also means forgetting about seeking revenge and retribution and working towards the future of the people for whom one is fighting as well as for the future of one’s one-time antagonists.
Revenge truly has no place in politics and in life too. “Vengeance is Mine, and retribution. In due time their foot will slip. For the day of their calamity is near, And the impending things are hastening upon them.” sayith the God of the Jews, and not man’s. He will take care of vengeance in His own good time and did!. Christ too spoke strongly against revenge in his famous sermon on the mount. The Buddha recommends compassion, right action and right speech In the Mahabaratha, which is really a narrative of events that lead to a great war, one may mention that after Krishna’s passionate recommendation to Arjuna of the virtues of the war, the Pandavas and the Kauravas were at peace with each other in the afterlife, described in the last chapter of the epic.
Mandela puts the idea of ignoring or underplaying the past and puts emphasis on the future of his people who now constituted the black and brown and white people--and their continued well-being. The wily strategist that he was, he uses every opportunity to forge that multiracial alliance. The passionate anti-apartheid white activist Chris Hani was assassinated and the black people were ready for violent reprisals. Mandela took to the air waves and used the fact that it was a white woman that recognized the number of the car that carried the assassins thus enabling the police to apprehend them to claim that a unity between the white people and black is possible for the future of South Africa. The gods of sport next gives him one of the most dramaturgically rich occasions with which to forge the unity of the people of South Africa: the South African rugby team reaches the final of the World Cup and the final was to be played in South Africa itself. Mandela uses the championship game to create both the drama of a unified South African nation but deploys various metaphors to demonstrate his loyalty to the team since now they represent not by white South Africa but the South African nation. Rugby has been a white man’s sport in South Africa and in parts of the world too–but now Mandela stakes a claim to making it South Africa’s national game, the game with which white black and brown South Africans can identify. He memorizes the names of all the South African players and greets them at their practice and gives the captain of the team the handwritten copy of William Ernest Henley’s poem Invictus and quotes the famous lines from the poem: “I am the Captain. of my soul; I’m the master of my fate” and claims that during his time of incarceration the poem helped him and may help the Captain, too at a critical time of the game. On the day of the final match he turns up wearing a version of the captain’s jersey with the captain’s number at the back..
And so on and so forth: the South African team, against all calculations and predictions wins the championship of the world and the new nation, where there would be no vengeful massacres, was initiated. Did Mandela mention Sharpeville? Did he mention that the land that was being occupied and cultivated by the whites once belonged to the black people? Did he–or his associates and writers and scribes– claim a Lebensraum with fanciful conjectures about the history and land and language and place-names and claim rights for the black people?
No, not at all: he was a presentist, devoted to the ending of long-standing conflict and the futurist , wanting to march towards a peaceful just and integrated future. Indeed if any group of people and its leaders had cause to complain of past injustices and oppressions and violence it is the black people of South Africa. For Mandela. The past has passed, indeed is “another country” and the present is now and one must forge the future now.
I will quote in conclusion from his inaugural address:
We have triumphed in the effort to implant hope in the breasts of the millions of our people. We enter into a covenant that we shall build the society in which all South Africans, both black and white, will be able to walk tall, without any fear in their hearts, assured of their inalienable right to human dignity – a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world.
Never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another and suffer the indignity of being the skunk of the world. Let freedom reign.
Perhaps, there is a lesson to be learnt from this for us in Sri Lanka? Or perhaps not…Or perhaps it is too late…Or perhaps we should be talking more of reconstruction rather than reconciliation alone…