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Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Mandela’s Courage as Politicized Forgiveness

Whereas we grasp the interior sense in which Ghandhi forgave, the media has promoted a false, politicized forgiveness as the real thing in Mandela’s case. I am impugning the aggrandizing press here, rather than Mandela himself.
 
 
In claiming that Mandela “insisted on forgiveness,” John Mahaha uses the following quote from the man himself: “To go to prison because of your convictions and be prepared to suffer for what you believe in, is something worthwhile. It is an achievement for a man to do his duty on earth irrespective of the consequences.”[1] The suffering being referred to here is neither suffering for its own sake nor suffering unnecessarily. With regard to being willing to suffer for what he believed in, Mandela had Gandhi as a role model, though (and this is crucial) Gandhi's social moral principle of nonviolence cannot be reconciled with Mandela's prescription of violence. To the extent that advocating armed rather than passive resistance legitimated even just a portion of Mandela's prison time, the Father of South Africa could not have considered his own suffering in prison as strong morally as that of the Father of India. By moral strength, I have in mind a sort of power that had escaped Nietzsche's grasp. Even so, both Mandela and Gandhi endured great suffering to be true to their respective principles and see them realized in a more just world. This is not to say that both men forgave in the same sense.
 
 
I submit that what Mahaha takes to be forgiveness is actually something else. In philosophical terms, he unknowingly committed a category mistake in writing his op-ed piece. To be willing to suffer for one’s convictions is indeed laudable, but forgiveness is not necessarily entailed or even implied. I suspect that Mandela himself would admit that he did not feel any sense of forgiveness during the 27 years of imprisonment. I have seen video-taped footage of him on the prison-island refusing to speak with a group of people passing by while he was outdoors. His stiff glance and held silence belies any hint of forgiveness.
 
 
Lest it be claimed that Mandela forgave his former oppressors once he had regained his freedom, his second wife insisted on a television interview following her husband's death that Mandela had drew on an incredible strength of self-discipline and fortitude, rather than the interior sort of forgiveness that Gandhi preached and felt. Sadly, commentators and both print and broadcast journalists marveled in saccharine platitudes at Mandela's amazing forgiveness after suffering for nearly three decades in prison. Clearly, the journalists and pontificators had not done their research.
 
 
The research could have started with topical statements from Mandela himself. “If you want to make peace with your enemy,” he once said, “you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner.”[2] Insisting that such advice is none other than felt forgiveness artfully “gilds the lily,” as if dipping Mandela’s heart in gold with the benefit of hindsight. The working peace is political rather than interior; accordingly, any forgiveness would be likewise, for Mandela would not have said “you have to work with your enemy” were the enemy already forgiven. Instead, he might have said, “you must get to the point of caring about and for your enemy.” Although the term political forgiveness applies, the operative virtue here is actually closer to political courage than forgiveness. According to his second wife, Mandela used great self-discipline rather than forgiveness to resist the impulse to retaliate and instead work with the bastards.
 
Nelson Mandela reaching out to a former enemy. Political or religious forgiveness? (Image Source: Wikimedia Commons)
 
 
It takes interior courage to muster political courage, to deny oneself the convenient route politically. Mandela drew on his mighty courage in not only risking imprisonment by urging armed resistance, but also pushing himself to work with the party of his former oppressors. I suspect that humility, even if only in a political use, played a role after his arduous suffering in prison. Elongated pain has a way of resizing a man’s estimation of his own powers and proper stature. Interestingly, endured suffering may also rarify courage, for the downside is no longer of the unknown. While more difficult to unpack than saccharine forgiveness so often bandied about by dandies, tremendous self-discipline applied as courage as political forgiveness more closely fits the man who saved South Africa from itself.





1.  John Dramani Mahama, “Mandela Taught a Continent to Forgive,” The New York Times, December 5, 2013.
2. William Welch, “South Africa’s Leader Transformed Nation, Self,” USA Today, December 27, 2013.