Should Nelson Mandela Become a Saint?

By James N. Kariuki*

Late in Nelson Mandela’s life, the news media tried to tag him with the title of a saint to which he strenuously objected. Archbishop Desmond Tutu also resisted the saint label for his close friend, maintaining that Madiba merely approximated Christ-like attributes such as forgiving his tormentors. That was a high tribute indeed from a career clergyman.

Mandela himself insisted that he was an ordinary mortal. As he put it, “I am not a saint, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.” For emphasis, he added that when he finally got to heaven, the first thing that he would do was look around for a local branch of the ANC and sign up for membership. That he was destined for heaven was not the issue. The point was that he would always be a political and pragmatic man, even in the hereafter.

Why would Madiba’s contemporaries seek to shower him with veneration, to canonize him?

Mandela’s greatest secular achievement was in forgiving his tormentors, those who had unjustly imprisoned him for 27 years. Upon release, he extended a hand of friendship to his antagonists and engaged in activities that some regarded as ‘appeasement.’ He invited his white prison-guard to his presidential inauguration. During the 1995 Rugby World Cup, he donned the green jersey of SA national rugby team, the symbol of Afrikaner nationalism. He even visited the unrepentant widow of the architect of apartheid, Betsy Verwoerd, ‘to have tea.’

Whether for political pragmatism or personal magnanimity, Mandela’s lasting gift to SA was in transcending the race issue. By securing especially the trust of the non-blacks, he transformed into a symbol of homogeneous multi-racialism, which SA never was. He became psychological cement, a catalyst, which would bind the country’s racial diversity and sustain that ‘bond’ through the peaceful but rugged metamorphosis from the ranks of world’s ‘skunk’ to a vibrant democracy. Given SA racial history that Mandela, a ‘terrorist’-turned-a-peace-monger, was a supernatural paradox, a miracle, for which South Africans were collectively grateful. Hence the temptation to confer reverence upon Madiba.

Was Mandela’s ‘rare gift to his country’ attributable to his person, being a South African or his Africanity? The proposition here is that the instinct to forgive-your-enemy is an ‘African thing’; it is wired into our DNA.  This is not to dismiss the possibility that Mandela’s post-prison public image could have been a contrived political posturing from the head, not the heart. Nor is it to suggest that Africans are pacifists; we know better. We are here talking only of Africans’ propensity to forgive.

In 1967 Nigeria exploded into one of modern Africa’s most lamentable conflicts: the Nigeria-Biafra War. It was a complex war in which Nigeria fought for national integrity, against secession. For Biafra it was a war of two nations over sovereignty lost by force. Biafrans were intent on recapturing their self-determination because they had never given their consent of the governed to Nigeria.

But something went terribly wrong. What started off as a Nigerian civil war quickly turned into a magnet for Cold War contestants: Britain, France, USA, USSR, China and Portugal. In this sense, it was a world war in microcosm. In addition to dividing up Africa, the Nigeria-Biafra War became a catastrophe of major proportions that sucked in global actors deeply into African affairs.

The war also became agonizing due to its staggering excesses. It was a genocidal undertaking in which innocent civilians were systematically killed for no apparent military purposes; even women and children were deliberately starved by a federal Nigerian Food and Economic blockade.

Finally, for good measure, the effects of the war were telecast around the world to dramatize a scale of savagery that made a mockery of the stated objectives of the war. Indeed in his book, There Was a Country, Chinua Achebe has concluded that “the Nigeria-Biafra War was arguably the most televised conflict in history.” In this sense, the Biafra War was also a media war.

Yet, despite its excesses, pitfalls and shortcomings, there was something remarkably ‘civil, humane and noble’ about how the Biafra War ended. From the outset, the Nigerian-Commander-in Chief, Yakubu Gowon, had insisted that secessionist Igbo were not enemies of federal Nigeria; “they are our brothers.” In the course of the war, however, he occasionally slipped. Brothers do not impose Food and Economic blockades on each other, in war or otherwise.

In victory, however, Gowon manifested unmitigated saint-like magnanimity. In their defeat the Igbo, for good and legitimate reasons, expected unrestrained massacres to follow, but none came. Gowon declared that there were no winners or vanquished from the war. In addition to refraining from proclaiming a victory, Nigeria chose to declare a general amnesty.

Finally, Nigeria opted not to conduct Nuremberg-type trials or award victors’ medals of valor to the federal soldiers. In short, there were “no genocide, no proscription, no settling of vendettas, and no reprisals of any kind.”  In this sense, the Nigerian-Biafra war outshone its American and Spanish counterparts by averting future war hatred. In grief, Nigeria gave the world a model to mimic in future such conflicts.

In resorting to reconciliation at the collapse of apartheid twenty years later, was Mandela’s a separate and isolated case in modern African history?  This question prompts another: what do SA, Zimbabwe and Kenya have in common? All are in black Africa and were once European colonies. Each was home to a sizeable presence of white settlers and independence for each of them involved bloodshed. Less publicized of the trio is that, when the time came, they all sought to consummate their freedom in the spirit of reconciliation.

Prof James N. Kariuki
Prof James N. Kariuki

In the early 1960s, Kenya’s Jomo Kenyatta emerged from colonial imprisonment urging his colonial tormentors to stay. Those colonizers had committed horrifying human rights abuses against Kenyatta’s people but, for assurance that black-ruled Kenya would be sweet home for them, he wrote a book clearly aimed at calming their nerves. Hence the startling title of Kinyatta’s popular book, Suffering without Bitterness (1968). Some Black diehards considered the book’s title as verging on ‘appeasement.’

Twenty years after Kenya’s independence and a decade before apartheid crumbled, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe expressed strikingly similar sentiments. Lest history forgets, in 1981 Mugabe was shortlisted for the Nobel Peace Prize for his initial enthusiasm for racial reconciliation following his country’s transition from white-ruled Rhodesia to majority-ruled Zimbabwe. As the country’s first president, Mugabe stated, “Our people, young and old, men and women, black and white, living and dead, are, on this occasion, being brought together in a new form of national unity that makes them all Zimbabweans.” In short, let bygones be bygones.

Ian Smith, that late antithesis to African nationalism in all its forms and the white man behind the savage Rhodesian War that cost 30, 000 lives, remained free and un-tormented in majority-ruled Zimbabwe. In fact Smith became a Member of Parliament in Mugabe’s black government and its harshest critic.

In sum, Jomo Kenyatta, Robert Mugabe and Nelson Mandela absorbed horrific victimhood from their former white tormentors but, as victors, they responded uniformly by offering reconciliation as the way forward. With minor variations, the same can be said of victorious federal Nigeria.

This kind of generosity of spirit is alien in say, Israel, relative to its Arab neighbors or Algeria viz-a-viz France in post-colonial era. And even in the US, traces of ’agitation’ are still detectable among the vanquished Southerners after all these years since the American civil war. Hence our contention that forgiveness is as familiar and apparent in black African cultures as the tropical sun.

After the Nigeria-Biafra War, a European author of note stated, “When history takes a longer view of Nigeria’s war it will be shown that, while the black man has little to teach us about making war, he has a real contribution to offer in making peace.” For brokering the peaceful negotiations to terminate apartheid, Nelson Mandela dovetails cleanly into this club of champions of African peacemaking.

*James N. Kariuki is a Professor (emeritus) of International Relations. He is a Kenyan and lives in South Africa.





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One Comment

  1. Prof, Thank you for this nice piece. Whilst I agree with on several points, there is at least one area I see worth commenting. Your point about the African forgiving spirit is true as long as it is viewed from one perspective – the African race vs other races. Mostly, it is the other way round among Africans, or precisely between African tribes who, generally, are ethnocentric within Africans. The propensity of the African, whether individual or as tribe, to forgive other of different tribe is one of convenience rather than from the heart.

    This trait is seen for instance, in the Nigeria-Biafra War, and your description confirms it:
    “The war also became agonizing due to its staggering excesses. It was a genocidal undertaking in which innocent civilians were systematically killed for no apparent military purposes; even women and children were deliberately starved by a federal Nigerian Food and Economic blockade.”

    Gowon, whilst slyly insisting that the Igbos were brothers, was unconcerned whilst non-Igbo fighters were unleashing their traits against another tribe by callously eliminating as many Igbos as possible. What about the deliberate starving of the women and children by the federal Nigerian Food and Economic blockade? Those were the inhumane, retaliatory punishments against the Igbos for their secession thought.

    In South Africa, the complex relationship and encounters between Mangosuthu Buthelezi (Inkatha Freedom Party) and ANC members can also be sited.

    The characterization is similar in Rwanda, Kenya, CAR, DRC, Liberia, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, Egypt, Chad, Ivory Coast etc. etc. Precolonial Africa was no different.

    Whilst it can be said that the African’s “instinct to forgive” non-Africans (NOT vice versa) is an ‘African thing’; it is wired into our DNA, the same cannot be said among Africans.

    Precolonial history and evidential post-colonial facts are the bases of my assessment.

    I hope that the African would exercise their forgiving instinct expediently lest it be abused, and that they would also extend it toward their own type, regardless of tribe.

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