Nelson Mandela: remembering his contribution to Burundian Peace Talks on his 93rd Birthday Anniversary.

Long live the African legend Nelson Mandela. On 18 July 2011, what a journey for a man whose destiny seemed to have been written well in advance in the pages of history of his country, Africa and of course the world! In 1961, Mandela and his ANC colleagues, after having agreed that their non-violence policy and actions to tell the Apartheid regime that Black People were ruthlessly discriminated against was not working, they decided to set up Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), meaning ‘spear of the nation’, the military  wing of the African National Congress.

After the Sharpeville massacre in March 1960, the ANC was banned by the South African government and went underground until the ban was lifted in 1990. In 1962, at the age of 44 and as commander in chief of MK, Mandela visited many countries [Bechuanaland, Tanganyika, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Morrocco, Mali, French Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Ghana, Senegal, United Kingdom, and Sudan]. During his visits, he met with political leaders in an effort to elicit political and economic support for MK and underwent military training in Morocco and Ethiopia. In the two weeks he spent in London he was then with Oliver Tambo.

We know that Mandela spent almost three decades in prison, from 1963 to 1990, becoming one among the longest serving political prisoners of his time. Many changes occurred in South Africa and internationally which led to the abolition of Apartheid and Mandela release from prison. When democratic elections occurred on 27 April 1994, ANC won and Mandela became President. On top of his country’s top responsibilities, he also got involved in external peace initiatives in other countries.

From his notes in ‘Conversations with Myself,’ about a meeting in Arusha – Tanzania, during the Burundi peace process, Mandela writes this on 16 January 2000:

‘Few of the parties negotiating, if any, seem to have learnt the art of compromise. The inflexibility of certain parties will inevitably make it difficult to secure the compromises necessary for a workable agreement… There is a deeply entrenched perception, which is shared even by some highly experienced and impartial political analysts, that the real problem in Burundi is the lack of a dynamic leadership which understands the importance of national unity, of peace and reconciliation, a leadership with vision and which is moved by the slaughter of innocent civilians.

I do not know whether this perception is accurate or not. I will decide the question as we continue together to seek a formula for peace and stability. I believe that all of you are capable of rising to expectations and to meet the enormous challenges facing your country. The fact that you have emerged as leaders of your country, whatever mistakes you committed and weaknesses revealed in your thinking and actions, proves that you are all opinion makers who are worried over the tragic events that have led to the slaughter of thousands of your people.

But the failure to agree on many core issues, the numerous splits in your political organisations, the lack of a sense of urgency, in a situation which requires bold initiatives, is undoubtedly an indictment against all of you… Compromise is the art of leadership and you compromise with your adversary, not with your friend. It would seem from a study of your situation that all of you have been posturing, inflexible, concentrating on manoeuvring to discredit or weaken your rivals. Hardly any one of you has concentrated on drawing attention to those issues that unite you and your people.

Studying the latest history of your country, you seem to be totally unaware of the fundamental principles which ought to motivate every leader.

  1. That there are good men and women in all communities. In particular there are good men and women among the Hutus, Tutsis and the Twa; that the duty of a real leader is to identify those good men and women and give them tasks of serving the community.
  2. That a true leader must work hard to ease tensions, especially when dealing with sensitive and complicated issues. Extremists normally thrive when there is tension, and pure emotion tends to supersede rational thinking.
  3. A real leader uses every issue, no matter how serious and sensitive, to ensure that at the end of the debate we should emerge stronger and more united than ever before.
  4. In every dispute you eventually reach a point where neither party is altogether right or altogether wrong. When compromise is the only alternative for those who seriously want peace and stability.’

From the Arusha peace talks, Burundi political leadership and Burundians in general came out looking forward to a better future for their country. The years which followed the negotiations were filled with hope. Burundians you spoke to at the time seemed to experience that feeling. A decade after, how far that reason for living has been betrayed by those who were supposed to be responsible of sustaining it? Mandelas are rare species. They don’t come around very often in humankind history. When one has a chance of learning from them, they have to cherish their invaluable experience.


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