The lesson of Mandela in a polarised land

opinion July 22, 2014 00:00

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Former prime minister Anand Panyarachun speaks about the "Long Walk to Democratic Governance" at Chulalongkorn University to commemorate Nelson Mandela International Day on July 18. Here's part one of the speech.

We are gathered here today to honour a great leader - Nelson Mandela – a man who gave his life for his people, and in so doing, changed the course of history.
Today is also an occasion for us to reflect on the values that President Mandela stood for, namely freedom, equality, justice and dignity.
His life and universal legacy remind us of the crucial link between those values and the path to democratic governance.
Tracing his footsteps, there are many key lessons that resonate strongly today, with a sense of immediacy and relevancy.
Courage in the face of Adversity 
Many of us are familiar with Nelson Mandela’s “Long Road to Freedom.” His life was – par excellence – a lesson in commitment, tenacity and sacrifice.
He was born of royal lineage.
He built the African National Congress (ANC) to help liberate South Africa from the apartheid regime.
He fought for equality for non-whites so they could become part and parcel of an all-embracing democratic process.
He spent twenty-seven years in prison standing up for his beliefs and ideals.
He endured hardship, without his spirit ever being daunted. 
He continued, despite imprisonment, to promote the cause of freedom, democracy and justice. 
As the international pressure for his release gained momentum, South Africa was on the brink of ethnic strife.
In 1990, when he was freed, he seized his own destiny and that of his country and people. 
He reined in his emotions and let reason prevail. Indignation opened the door not to retribution but reconciliation, not to vengeance but compassion, not to vilification but democratisation.
Nelson Mandela had succeeded in turning the tide.
Empathy in the face of Animosity
He was freed at the time when South Africa was highly polarised – with looming threats of mass violence along racial lines. 
What path did he choose?
He shunned aggressive and divisive policies, revenge and punishment. 
He reached out to justice, while offering a hand to former foes for the sake of peace and unity. 
He demonstrated the qualities of enlightened leadership in the face of animosity, particularly from those who were partisan and prejudiced. 
He recognised from the political negotiations after his release that he had to help heal South Africa and introduce a different construct of Statehood, as a “community” for all racial and social groups. 
In 1994 he was elected as South Africa’s first black President, with all citizens enjoying universal suffrage.
He established a government of National Unity, a coalition government that included many previous foes, but now with a new lease of life. 
He set out to build “The Rainbow Nation” premised upon a multicultural democracy.
His empathy towards sceptics was shown most creatively when he initiated the process of truth and reconciliation, which helped to nurture back to life a community traumatised by racial scars and pervasive oppression. 
His wisdom recognised that the victims of apartheid had to be heard, and the alleged perpetrators had to be identified and listened to, with due regard for rehabilitation and accountability. 
He realised that the process had to be cathartic – it had to open the door to documenting the truth, with a hand of forgiveness for minor transgressions for those who spoke the truth and were repentant. 
Those failing to assist, those who did not repent, those who preferred to hide in the quagmire of their misdeeds, and those who had committed major crimes were channelled to the natural course of justice, being accorded due process of law. 
Democracy in the face of Fragility
What are some of the lessons and implications for democracy today? We know there is no single, absolute model of democracy. It has to be nurtured, sometimes within a fragile environment. Its progression may not necessarily be linear in progression. 
For instance, European history is a chronicle of civil wars, revolutions and dictatorships. Yet democracy took root and today no rival political system challenges it in Europe. 
It should not be forgotten that the Magna Carta had to gestate for many centuries before the advent of universal suffrage and full-fledged democracy. 
Likewise, the American Revolution had to wait two more centuries before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 would guarantee equality between whites and blacks. 
For emerging democracies, a persistent challenge is how to foster and sustain a democratic system, together with checks-and -balances against abuse of power, as part of democratic governance.  
On this auspicious day, I would thus like to reflect, based on South Africa’s experience, on seven pathways to democratic governance, which are particularly relevant for Thai society.
First, “free and fair” elections are a fundamental element of all healthy democracies. 
The advent of elections, an elected President, Parliament and a liberal Constitution in South Africa bore the trademark of a dynamic process towards democracy, instilling democratic values in the national mind set. Yet, as President, Nelson Mandela also recognised that democracy had to deliver on the goods – the basics of life, such as food, shelter, income and welfare services, to be truly credible and acceptable. Democracy is not a synonym for good government.
The mere act of holding an election, by no means, guarantees democracy, particularly in the absence of a multiparty political system or where there is a tendency towards monopoly of power. Proper mechanisms need to be put in place to ensure that elections are free and fair, and conducted in an open and transparent environment.
Second, respect for diversity of views and beliefs as well as tolerance are part and parcel of a functioning democracy.
An election does not give a mandate to oppress or sideline those who voted against the winning party. If we prescribed to the notion of “winner-take-all”, we would seriously impede the development of a democratic society. 
Therefore, majority rule has to be respectful of the rights and interests of both the majority and the minority. What the winner earns is an ongoing duty to strike a balanced consensus in society, which President Mandela aspired to throughout his term in office. 
If minority groups do not benefit equitably from the electoral process, conflict will be stoked.
In an inclusive society, one learns to live side by side with your opponents, albeit with room for reasoned debate and disagreement. 
Third, respect for human rights and the rule of law are paramount. Human rights are the benefits to which we should all be entitled and guaranteed by the State based on universal norms.
There are civil and political aspects, such as freedom of speech and peaceful assembly. There are economic, social and cultural aspects, such as the right to an adequate standard of living and food security. Those rights go hand-in-hand and are indivisible. 
Meanwhile, the Rule of Law implies that actions must not be arbitrary and must be based on law, tested against the backdrop of international standards. There should be guarantees for accused persons, such as access to courts and lawyers to ensure justice. 
Part 2 will be published tomorrow.