Mbabane, Swaziland | 15 Jan 2014
With Nelson Mandela’s recent passing, and with many people rushing to label his legacy, it seems a good time to remember his belief in the power of words and language.
“Without language, one cannot talk to people and understand them,” says Mandela in his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom. “One cannot share their hopes and aspirations, grasp their history, appreciate their poetry or saviour their songs.”
After retelling a story from his younger days about racial and ethnic differences in Johannesburg, Mandela writes: “I again realised that we were not different people with separate languages, we were one people with different tongues.”
One people with different tongues. In one simple yet thought-provoking phrase he shows how language has the potential to alter attitudes and, with any luck, actions.
It illustrates how a complex and often explosive topic can be viewed in a new light. A more generous and humane light.
One gets the feeling that Mandela would not have been a fan of the empty jargon that is becoming more common in public discourse.
The jargon of benchmarks and outcomes, language that relies on hollow rhetoric to convey nothing but vagueness.
Another example of Mandela’s deft use of words came in 1993. The popular leader of the South African Communist Party, Chris Hani, had just been murdered and the country, by many accounts, was edging closer to a race war.
“Tonight I am reaching out to every single South African, black and white, from the very depths of my being. A white man, full prejudice and hate, came to our country and committed a deed so foul that our whole nation teeters on the brink of disaster. A white woman, of Afrikaner origin, risked her life so that we may know, and bring to justice this assassin. This cold-blooded murder of Chris Hani has sent shock waves throughout the country and the world. Our grief and anger is tearing us apart.”
After Mandela’s release from prison in 1990 he used measured words to bridge the divide between black and white, to empathise and share in the pain of his countrymen while resisting the urge for revenge. And one gets the sense his words were made more powerful because he truly believed revenge was not the answer.
Richard Stengel, who worked with Mandela on Long Walk to Freedom and author of Mandela’a Way: Lessons on Life, said this about the days following Hani’s death.
“In that moment, months before the first democratic elections in South African history, he [Mandela] became the as yet unelected leader of white and black South Africans.”
Call it Mandela’s training as a lawyer (he got the facts first about the foreign assassin and the white woman who called the police); call it his desire for peace over war; call it what you will, but in that moment, when things were dire, he mustered the words to calm and guide a nation that for too long had been divided by irrational and arbitrary racial hatred.
Mandela’s genius, despite his many self-proclaimed flaws and despite his one-time attachment to justifiable violence, was his ultimate and unyielding belief in the power of dialogue: his belief that within words lay the seeds to build a practical and symbolic sense of togetherness.
No-one would argue that South Africa’s first 20 years of democracy has been a bed of roses. And it would be disingenuous of me (a foreigner from Australia) to suggest I have a grasp on the true history and the big challenges that lie ahead for the people of South Africa. But therein lies Mandela’s appeal: the universal nature of his message. That with genuine forgiveness and a commitment to dialogue, past injustices may just give way to a fairer future.
This column was originally published in the Times of Swaziland