Nelson Mandela’s Lessons for Today’s Peacebuilders

The challenge of creating a more peaceful and just world can often seem an abstract one. It is, of course, one that is a common endeavor; one that must focus the minds of policy-makers and take root in communities recovering from conflict. But although the mission is a shared one, there is no substitute for leadership.

Leadership can transcend old animosities and bring a suffering people to the negotiating table, even when painful compromises must be made. Leadership is visionary in an elemental sense, announcing a world of possibilities and jettisoning conventional wisdom. Leadership speaks to a human sensibility: though we recognize our common goals, we require our mission to take form in the conviction of a leader we trust. We require faith. And for faith to take root, we require a prophet.

Nelson Mandela was one of the towering prophets of the twentieth century. Alongside Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., he enters the pantheon of visionary leaders who transformed their nations – and the world – not by force of arms but by the righteousness of their struggle. That the international community unites this week to mourn his passing is a testament to the appeal of Mandela’s creed: that healing begins with forgiveness and that justice can prevail in even the darkest of places.

Eulogizing Nelson Mandela’s contributions to South Africa is an important first step in honoring his memory, but more worthy of the leadership he provided is to apply the lessons of his life to contemporary challenges. Through his words and actions, Mandela exhibited an extraordinary faith in the rule of law as an instrument to create more peaceful and just societies. There was no starker example of this than Mandela’s acceptance, in 1996, of the invalidation by South Africa’s Constitutional Court of elements of the country’s new constitution. Demanding respect for ‘a court on which hinges the future of democracy’, Mandela demonstrated an instinctive understanding of the importance of institutional integrity in the transition to democracy.

The process of transitional justice in South Africa, which Mandela oversaw, is today hailed as a model for countries emerging from conflict. It gained credibility, of course, through his own integrity, but gathered steam through the burgeoning legitimacy of institutions underpinned by the principle of equality before the law. Truth and reconciliation commissions were a key component of transition in South Africa and were emblematic of Mandela’s approach, but so too was the process of constitution building, which gradually built trust between the parties through mutual adherence to legal principles. The result was the establishment of the rule of law, rather than merely rule bylaw.

When I met Nelson Mandela, on the occasion of a Security Council meeting on Burundi he attended in November 2001, he had begun his role as a peacemaker beyond his own borders, helping to broker a power sharing deal between Hutus and Tutsis in Burundi. At the UN that day, he exhibited his characteristic optimism that a more peaceful world was well within our grasp. It is a sentiment that has remained with me to this day and one that convinces me that the legacy of Nelson Mandela is not one we can allow to be consigned to the past, but one we must take forward in the future.

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