When I was young, there seemed several intractable facts of life. Ireland would always have its Troubles, Berlin would always be divided by a wall and Apartheid would never end in South Africa, not at least without destruction and bloodshed.
That these symbols of conflict and division would so peacefully cease before I’d even grown a grey hair would have astonished me. That the Soviet Russia would also fade without civil war or global conflagration would have also left me in a state of disbelief.
Yet these things happened. And they happened within such a short time of each other that it felt like a hand was sweeping through history. In the fading years of the 20th century, peace seemed a possibility in a century so beset by war and conflict, it had started to serialise its strife. World War I, the war to end them all, had a celebrated sequel and we have since waited with bated breath for the third instalment, the apocalyptic climax to the trilogy.
When Nelson Mandela emerged from imprisonment, an entire nation was released from captivity. Apartheid applied to both black and white, although only black suffered its everyday extremes, and few endured as sustained suffering as Nelson Mandela. When Mandela emerged from prison, he had been in jail my entire life and had been an unceasing symbol of struggle though those 27 years.
Had that jail term been his life’s statement, it would have been unparalleled in its impact, but Mandela had a much more important part to play in raising humanity’s expectations of itself. The grandest gesture of all would be to seal a century of shame with its most poignant gesture of forgiveness in creating a new South Africa.
South Africa still has a semblance of apartheid, although now it is largely economic, and the walls surrounding the suburban enclaves attest to these persistent partitions. Apartheid is still practised in other parts of the world as states sanction these separations based on culture and ethnicity. My own country of Australia, one of the last to oppose apartheid in South Africa, practised it against its own indigenous and got away with it because of its relative obscurity on the world stage. Today it segregates, interns and punishes the oppressed of other countries in detention centres intended to deter people who are often fleeing their own apartheid.
It’s fortunate then that we have Mandela’s shining life to guide us through these darker recesses of human depravity. Instead of bitterness and recrimination, he taught us that a nation could heal from even the most appalling atrocities and even the worst enemies could be reconciled by moving forward with mercy and grace.