Only the Naive Believe That Nelson Mandela's Magnanimity Is a Formula for Politicians Seeking to Bring Peace to Other Trouble Spots

By Lloyd, John | New Statesman (1996), July 19, 1996 | Go to article overview

Only the Naive Believe That Nelson Mandela's Magnanimity Is a Formula for Politicians Seeking to Bring Peace to Other Trouble Spots


Lloyd, John, New Statesman (1996)


It is better to laud a good man than a bad one, but to do the first can be more beguiling than the second. Thus Nelson Mandela, promoted during his visit to Britain last week as a secular saint, was held up as an example to lesser politicians everywhere: if he can reconcile a nation after the suffering of incarceration, what is to prevent others who have less to forgive from doing more to bring peace?

The answer is simple. Nelson Mandela has been able to do what he has done not because he is a saint but because he won. His release and elevation to the South African presidency was a consequence of a decision by the major party of the whites, the Nationalist Party under F W de Klerk, to end apartheid in stages -- a decision that led, in 1994, to the African National Congress victory in the polls. De Klerk had realised that the old game was up, and was able to carry the majority of whites with him. To be sure, Mandela's grace since has been the response of a man of stature and civilisation; but it was also a common-sense calculation that whites had to be reassured, and a gesture made from a position of strength.

Mandela-ism is not exportable. The comparison with Northern Irish politics, made often in the press as Mandela's visit coincided with the breakdown of the Northern Irish peace process, confounded rather than clarified. David Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, can no more be Nelson Mandela than he can be Gerry Adams. He represents a people convinced that their preferred status -- as British citizens -- is under threat from the peace process itself. He must struggle hard (and does) to try to dissuade loyalist paramilitaries from resuming their campaign of terrorism in response to the terrorism re-ignited by the provisional IRA. Were he to be magnanimous, he would lose his leadership instantly and his parliamentary seat soon after.

All Irish politicians are trapped by what Conor Cruise O'Brien calls their "ancestral voices": all have been drawn back by them in this past week. It is certainly true that leadership, or statesmanship, has been woefully lacking -- especially on the side of an Irish government tempted to denounce where it should have given public evidence of understanding. But such leadership will not come to power, or be effective, on saintliness: it will have now to deal from a position of strength.

Nor can saintliness be commended to the other leader facing a huge test: Binyamin Netanyahu, prime minister of Israel. …

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