Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu: Living Icons of Reconciliation

By de Klerk, B. J. | The Ecumenical Review, October 2003 | Go to article overview

Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu: Living Icons of Reconciliation


de Klerk, B. J., The Ecumenical Review


The word icon is derived from the Greek word eikon, meaning image. (1) It is an artifact that embodies a set of mental associations that surpasses its functionality and immediate environment. (2) An icon must influence an individual's cultural experiences. It exists in one's perceptions and is created by means of communication. Persons have become icons post-hoc by being perceived to embody a particular, vigorous set of associations of time, place and culture. The dictionary definitions of "reconciliation" have an underlay of restoration, of re-establishing things to their original state. The Oxford Dictionary says: "to make friendly again after an estrangement; make resigned; harmonize; make compatible, able to coexist".

Mandela's years before freedom in 1990

At the end of the last millennium there was a felt journalistic need to pick a "man of the century", and one of the names that kept cropping up was that of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela. There can be little doubt about the presence of Mandela's fingerprints on the past fifteen years. He was born in 1918 to a polygamous family with ethnically royal status. Mandela's mother converted to Christianity when he was seven. His subsequent mission school education was balanced by the oral history that he learned from his tribal elders. His father died when he was nine. He wrote in his autobiography that he is a Christian (3) and that this explains his convictions and actions later in life. He studied law and established the first black law firm in South Africa in 1952 in partnership with Oliver Tambo. From the start of his stay in Johannesburg he was a leader in the African National Congress (ANC) and became the president of the ANC in the Transvaal and later deputy president of the national ANC.

Ten years of struggle against the apartheid regime in the 1950s and early 1960s inside the country and abroad lead to the Rivonia trial. This trial lasted nearly one year and Mandela conducted his own defence. In his historic speech at the end of the trial he said he was prepared to die for the struggle for freedom. Mandela and his comrades were sent to Robben Island, where they were isolated from other prisoners, and subjected to hard labour and dehumanizing treatment, so much so that he was even refused permission to attend the funerals of his mother and son. This must have a significant influence on the spirit of this remarkable person. The banning of Mandela had an unintended outcome: it inadvertently increased his mythical status, making Mandela an unassailable icon of struggle against racial injustice. (4) But how did an icon of struggle later become an icon of reconciliation?

The authorities tried to turn him into a non-person: he could not be quoted, no pictures of him were allowed and they hoped that he would disappear into the limbo of amnesia. But he became the world's most famous political prisoner and during those 27 years he prepared himself physically, mentally, emotionally, philosophically and morally for the task he was ultimately destined to accomplish. He had numerous opportunities to be released, but every time these involved certain conditions which he could not accept due to his principles and loyalty to the struggle. When it was eventually decided that he would be released unconditionally, there were fears that the country would finish in turmoil. But although there was overwhelming reason for him to be a bitter and aggressive person, the years in prison and his personal wisdom had changed him completely. On emerging from prison, he defined the task he had set himself as one of "reconciliation, of binding wounds of the country, of engendering trust and confidence". (5)

Mandela's reconciliation actions

In spite of the pophetic name he had been given at birth--Rolihlahla, "troublemaker"--he is a person with integrity, sound principles, a person with a soft spot for children. His dignity is rooted in a profound sense of self, based not on contempt for one's enemy but on an acknowledgment of a shared humanity.

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Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu: Living Icons of Reconciliation
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