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Peace Education

Case Study of Conflict Resolution: Nelson Mandela

South Africa offers a unique opportunity to study the process of reversal, restitution, and reconciliation on a person-to-person level. After Nelson Mandela took over the presidency from F.W. DeKlerk in 1994, white people had to start the process of restitution, giving up their political power and some of their economic power. During his 28 years in prison, Mandela sought to understand what motivated people, both prisoners and wardens. He learned the language of the white Afrikaaners in order to read their books, listen to the life stories of the prison wardens, and help them gain an education.

As a boy, Mandela had lived with his grandfather, a tribal chief, and witnessed first hand the traditional processes of conflict resolution. Through lengthy group discussions of goals among his fellow prisoners, including revolutionaries of different persuasions, he learned how to create consensus. By seeking to educate everyone and raise them to a higher moral level, Mandela developed his vision for building a multiracial nation. Mandela became famous as the man who forgave the enemies who jailed him, setting the example for his countrymen.

The black people in South Africa had long suffered from segregation and mistreatment, and with the arrival of a black government many white people feared for their life and property. Restitution needed to happen at the individual and family levels, so that reconciliation could take effect in every person’s life. Recognizing that conflict will be eradicated only if both sides take responsibility for the past and contribute to reconciliation, Mandela established a “Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1996.

The commission investigated crimes committed by both blacks and whites during the apartheid period. This commission was supervised by leaders, such as Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who were recognized for upholding moral values. White people were challenged to reflect on their responsibility for apartheid’s devastating consequences and to offer restitution for it at their own level. Black people were challenged to overcome their desire for revenge and take this historical opportunity to transcend patterns of retaliation. The commission offered civil and criminal amnesty to individuals in exchange for a full confession of the truth. The goal was to achieve understanding without vengeance and reparation without retaliation. The commission provided victims with medical, educational, and other tangible forms of assistance.

Victims of extraordinary suffering were offered symbolic restitution, such as naming a clinic for them or creating a scholarship in their honor. Such steps were aimed at restoring a sense of community and helping victims become able to forgive.

Nelson Mandela is widely known today and will be remembered as a true statesman. Black people look upon him with pride, and white people regard him with respect. This is not simply because he spent 28 years in apartheid jails but because he established a unique system for uncovering the truth about injustices and bringing about reconciliation on a person-to-person level. He refused, when he took power, to allow blacks to exact vengeance against the whites. On the contrary, he asked the white people to remain in the country, keep their property, and join in developing South Africa as a multiracial society. The path to reconciliation is rocky, but remarkable progress has been made.

Now the challenge is for ordinary people to create connections with each other across the racial gaps. Charles VillaVicencio, executive director of the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation in Cape Town, said, “We are in the process of learning the process of coexistence. Unless normal South Africans take responsibility for getting to know each other and for getting different race groups together, then it’s not going to happen.”

People of different races often live different worlds and do not learn to know each other as individuals. A 21-year-old white student who lived in a black township for almost a month launched Masazane. The world means “Let’s get to know each other” in the Xhosa language. He finds host families in townships and matches them with prospective guests. Other grassroots initiatives include getting groups of people of different races to sit down together for meals, inviting whites on tours of townships, and encouraging whites to contribute time, skills, and money to development projects. A black man who spent five years in jail and one year in exile said of the reconciliation process, “If it comes from the heart, it will be successful.”

From Causes and Resolution of Conflict, International Educational Foundation

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