Mandela: A Reflection

I will start by saying that this is not another Nelson Mandela eulogy. Not that it is not a worthy subject, it is, but it is also a well explored topic. My aim is different.

I will start by saying that I was born in 1988. Mandela’s story is one that I cannot claim to have lived through. He was freed in 1990, elected in 1994 and his mandate as President of South Africa ended in 1999, when I was eleven years old. I was not yet keen on international politics.

Having established that premise, I will add that, for me, Mandela has always been sort of a myth. A man, with an incredible story, unwavering will and the kindest of souls. One capable of putting an end to a racist regime that was supported by several important international actors. One that after 27 years of suffering was able to forgive. I am 25. 27 years is more than a lifetime to me and I find myself asking the question: would I have forgiven?

The saddening fact is that, when asking the same question, most of us would answer no. Most would seek some sort of retribution, be it physical (revenge) or monetary (via a lawsuit, which is something very common in western countries) compensation.

The most special thing about Mandela was that he was a man that we cannot be. Even if it is within our reach. Forgiveness, compassion, love are all taught to us when we are young and yet we seem to be unable to apply them in real life. An that is why there are so few examples of men of the likes of Mandela.

My reflection on this matter leads me to the point where I am forced to conclude: it must be a mess of a world, the one we live in, if truly good people, or truly good world leaders are the exception and not the rule. I find myself saddened by this fact.

The current world trend seems to be directing towards a more uneven world, even if the world economy seems to be balancing itself, with emerging markets growing at faster pace than that of traditional powers. The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. Unemployment is ravaging through Europe, affecting more and more young and, most of all, educated people. The result is that good examples are increasingly harder to find as our survival instincts surface in an more selfish world.

It is a grim diagnosis that points towards a future from which it is hard to expect something good. And I have no magic solution. It is a question for which I do not know the answer. I have been thinking about this since I got the news Mandela was dead and I am yet unable to provide a reply.

However, I am certain that I can do more and maybe that will help, even if just a little. As Gandhi (to whom Mandela is often compared) once said: “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. … We need not wait to see what others do.”

After his death, USA Today wrote that Mandela transformed himself and his country. Maybe that is where it all began. Maybe it is where it needs to start. And maybe, it is just another part of Mandela’s legacy, the one we should treasure the most.


Nelson Mandela (1918 – 2013)

“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

Is War Becoming Obsolete?

The Governments of the States Parties to this Constitution on behalf of their peoples declare: That since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed;” in Constitution of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO, 1945)

Let us assume that the countries represented in the UNESCO have gotten it right and war begins in the  minds of men. And if it is there that it must end, how must we convince men not to wage war anymore?

The answer on how to teach men not to wage war might be Time. As dueling and slavery became obsolescent, so should war, as it is argued by John Mueller.

Wars require public support but they make it difficult for that support to be harnessed in the future. Wars take a heavy toll on a country’s population, not only in terms of casualties, especially on the younger generations, but also through its economic hardships that can last for decades (see Germany or Portugal after World War I, for example).

Such a toll becomes increasingly important when we consider the way in which the world economy has arranged itself. Capitalism has, but for a few exceptions, been embraced as the most efficient economic ideology. With it come globalization and increasingly complex economic ties amongst businesses, countries and continents. War disturbs these connections with increased consequences for those who share these connections. They will, therefore, oppose involvement in any kind of war.

Besides these palpable impacts there is also a psychological toll. War is a gruesome thing. Men transform themselves, see and sometimes do things that will forever change them. Most of the times rules do not apply and conflict shows its ugliest side. That can account for a generation with deep psychological handicaps that will burden families and friends, eventually producing a general felling against war.

It is the development of this collective consciousness that we are (supposedly) going through. And, as some argue, we can already witness some of the results of this process. For example, most countries that were involved in major wars in the XIX and XX century have now placed a bigger effort on maintaining piece than in waging war.

Adding to that, most of the conflicts we see today are more likely to fit into the definition of organized crime, on a larger scale, than into the definition of war. Just think of the conflicts in Africa, Middle East or Asia. Inherent economic incentives are abundant and the lack of a stable government to enforce the law are some of the features that they share. A solid State, able to maintain security, stability and the rule of law, could have prevented most of these so called wars.

The fact is that humankind outgrew slavery as an economic activity, because it degraded the human condition. We outgrew duels because they were not the most efficient way of solving one’s quarrels with another one.

War is the way used by governments to settle disputes (with State or non-state actors) and as we experience more and more of it (especially now with the extensive front line coverage available) we are bound to become tired of an activity that degrades the human condition and is becoming increasingly inefficient when it comes to solving problems (as the unsolved wars of Iraq and Afghanistan clearly demonstrate).

I surely would love to believe this theoretical approach but I have my doubts. I think the minds of men are not as sane as we would want them to be. The recent hike in tensions between Japan and China show that states continue to defy one and another for reasons that seem distant from the needs of their citizens. Peace is not as entrenched as this approach suggests and war is right around the corner. China’s growth poses huge challenges to this idea and if the West sees the “big red dragon” as an enemy it will surely act like one. What is there to keep the world from another conflict? This is an issue I am skeptical about, but it is also an issue where I hope I am wrong.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa

On this day, 5th of December 2013, we grieve, since one of the greatest defenders of equal opportunities and freedom died. With Nelson Mandela’s death, it is also the end of an era in South Africa, that of the end of the Apartheid and of the beginning of the Rainbow Nation. All that we could write about Nelson Mandela, others have already written, more and better than us. We thus just pay a tribute to his memory, thank him for  all the good he did in the world and for being an inspiration for so many of us.

We also take the opportunity to talk about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a very important institutional body in the history of the post-Apartheid. This Commission, built up in the form of a court in 1995 by the South African governement, was intended to put an end to the grievances that were left amongst the South African society after 1994. Interestingly, the archbishop Desmond Tutu was nominated by Nelson Mandela to be its chairman. The Commission called people to express themselves on what human rights violations they had suffered during the Apartheid, and it tried to recover as much information as possible to what had occurred during that period. Nevertheless, contrary to a court (or tribunals such as the International Criminal Tribunals that exist in Rwanda or for the former Yugoslavia), it did not pursue those who had been “criminals” and had committed those violations. On the contrary, its purpose was to “reconcile” the society and learn from the mistakes of the past. In 1998 and 2003, the Commission issued several reports about the historic legacy of the Apartheid. Despite the fact that the Commission was often criticized for having ignored important aspects of the regime (such as ignoring those who had profited economically from it, and looking only to those that played an active role in it), or for not having been able to make the whole society cooperate, it was nevertheless a very important body for the history of South Africa. It will remain forever as an example of what peace and social mobilization can build up. Moreover, as it didn’t prosecute those who were “guilty”, it moved away from the conception of justice that had been present since the end of the World War II and the Nuremberg trials. However, some wonder if justice shouldn’t have been pushed forward, in order to appease the conflicts that still exist in the contemporary South African society.

The policy of “Authenticité”

In 1960, the King of Belgium went to Léopoldville to give his blessing to the independence of the Belgian Congo. The country thus became the Republic of Congo. Despite the holding of democratic elections during that first year of political autonomy, the history of the country was never peaceful since that time. Indeed, tensions rapidly built up between some of the ex-colonizers and the new government, leading up to the secession of the provinces of Katanga and South Kasai. After that, the democracy was torn apart by internal struggles for power, between the different parties that had walked the path to independence. After a coup d’Etat in 1961, the general Joseph-Désiré Mobutu took the command of the country, and eliminating his opponents one by one, he became the de facto leader of the Republic of Congo in 1965.

Mobutu was a terrible dictator that was only removed from power in 1996, remembered in part for his leopard-print hat and for being one of the richest men in the world. Nevertheless, there was one very interesting feature during his time in power: the policy of “Authenticité” (meaning “Authenticity”), that wanted to re-enshrine the African heritage. Trying to move away from the European influence that had marked Congo in the last centuries, Mobutu decided that he wanted Congo go back to its African roots and establish a national identity for the country. Thus, starting from 1971, the Congo and its river became known as “Zaire”, name that started to figure in all world maps. The names of all cities that had a relation with the colonizers were also replaced by African names, and the same happened with all historical buildings. Mobutu himself changed his name to Mobutu Sese Seko, and all Zairian citizens were legally forced to use their “Zairian” names. The currency “congolese franc” became the zaire, and even the use of suit and tie was banished to the profit of the “Abacost”.

Nevertheless, Mobutu himself ended up by putting an end to the policy of “Authenticité” in 1990, period in which his rule was highly weakened by the end of the Cold War and his poor economical choices. Indeed, the policy had been accompanied by a nationalization policy that was initially successful but eventually pushed the country into a disgraceful economic crisis. Zaire became the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1997, after the fall of Mobutu and the end of the First Congo War.

Thomas Pogge Theory

Thomas Pogge (1953 – ) is a German philosopher, that has been pushing forward the ideas of global justice and equality. We decided to talk about him because he has a very radical idea of justice, that makes him a philosopher of human rights. He defends that the economic and social order have enshrined in it justice and human rights, and while these ideas are not functioning, the world is unjust. He has a highly moral conception of justice, in which developed nations, and its citizens, are responsible and should be accountable for the millions of people who are touched by poverty and unequal opportunities, because this state of affairs is morally wrong. Much in line with the thoughts of the American philosopher Peter Unger, who defends that richer countries have a moral obligation to donate as much money as possible to charities in order to relieve poverty and avoid millions of deaths, Pogge argues that we (people in developed nations) are all responsible for the poverty of the world, because we know it exists and choose to ignore it. His book World Poverty and Human Rights: Cosmopolitan Responsibilities and Reforms (2002) is extremely controversial but also an excellent food-for-thought.

As Pogge explains, “Never has poverty been so easily avoidable”, yet, we fail to avoid it.  As a global community, as world citizens, we are thus all guilty of violating human rights, and not only States or big companies. Therefore, we should all be held accountable. Although this is a very interesting approach, it gives maybe too much credit to the role that citizens and common people should play in the international arena. His ideas base themselves on the presumption that the civil society can organize itself to the point of helping developing countries, and that citizens do have an influence. This is not that self-evident knowing the power of governments and corporations.

Nevertheless, Pogge’s idea is interesting since it calls us to review our most basic obligations, such as the respect of human dignity.

If you have the patience to read it, here is a very interesting article by Thomas Pogge that raises some important questions about our society and the role of human rights (give it a try, it’s only 3 pages long 😉 )

Political Islam

One of the reports I followed this week was the arrest of 15 Muslim extremists in Moscow, following a police raid on the eastern part of the Russian capital. On site, authorities found multiple explosives, weapons and ammo. Apparently they were part of an organization named Al-Takfir wal-Hijra, which has links to al-Qaeda. The group is well known in Russia and the most interesting thing about the report was the fact that Russian authorities filmed it.

These groups are, to a great extent, responsible for the reputation Muslims and the Islamic ideology share in western public opinion. Extremism tends to silence the more moderate speeches, a feat which is not exclusive to Muslims.

These groups want to change the state and turn it into an Islamic state. It seems a daunting idea but, at the same time, we had no quarrels in supporting the creation of a Jewish state. I find it is, therefore, important to understand what these organizations propose.

The movement behind the creation of an Islamic State is known as Political Islam and it has been growing since the beginning of the 20th Century. Middle Eastern citizens, disappointed with the State model put in place by the colonial powers that ruled them, aimed to solve the political, social and spiritual woes of their society, with a radical shift towards the Koran.

The advocates of this system aim to recreate the political system that the prophet Mohammed established in Medina, which was ruled under the sharia (Islamic law). However, in this distant past, politics was always a step ahead of religion. In the historical Islamic state, religion and politics were brought together through an effort by the state to legitimize the taxation of its Muslim citizens, which it required to support its growing needs. Politics appropriated religion and not the other way around.

The current version of the Islamic state aims to exist in a different way, putting religion ahead of politics, in an attempt to justify the actions of those who intend to seize power or of those that seem determined to maintain it. It is mostly a rhetoric tool that combines attacks on imperialism, colonialism and Zionism to hide the fact that it is an ideology that seeks the exact same thing as other state models. The final objective is always power.

However, as I mentioned above, the voices that talk the loudest are usually the more extremist ones. There have been good examples of Islamic ummahs, or communities, where there was a close relationship between politics and religion which could have become benchmark examples of how Political Islam can be implemented.

One such example is the case of Somalia where these Islamic communities replaced the government of the war torn country. After the country succumbed to a civil war and lost the institutions that made it a state, some local communities stepped in and made sure that certain public goods were guaranteed, namely security. The problem of piracy, one of the reasons why we know Somalia so well, was even reduced through the actions of these ummahs – security on land meant security in on the sea.

Unfortunately these small experiences have faced the opposition of foreign powers who fear they might be harboring terrorists. They have fought these ummahs and silenced some of the more moderate voices and provided incentive for the appearance of more extreme ones. There are still some surviving examples in Somalia (the case of Somaliland) but it is still to early to tell how they will their growth into the Modern State system be.

Although there have been some developments, Islamic political ideology has not been able to provide a definition of the state model in proposes. Different contexts seem to provide different results, as witnessed by the Muslim Brotherhood short rule in Egypt or the example provided by the Islamic Republic of Iran. In its essence the system seems undemocratic but, at the same time, built on the pillars of ancestry, experience and tradition as guides that governments must follow. Extremism is one of many ways to approach it and one must keep an open mind. If tolerance is added to the mix, there seems to be some value in keeping religion (not only Islam but others) in politics.

This is all very theoretical or hypothetical, at best. Even so, it is an area worth exploring, specially considering that one of the biggest criticisms made, in modern democracies, is that politics is somewhat out of touch with reality. Maybe a closer connection to the social and ethical values of religion could help restore some of the lost credibility. I do not know if it will work, but it is certainly worth exploring.