Africa’s Lincoln

Of Nelson Mandela’s many chroniclers few are more astute than the journalist John Carlin who covered South Africa’s democratic transition for the London Independent, then wrote Playing the Enemy which became the film Invictus. “Mandela”, he wrote in the Cairo Review in 2011, “is Africa’s Lincoln”.

He was referring to the Great Emancipator, Abraham Lincoln, America’s 16th president, thanks to whom the swath of territory between Canada and the Rio Grande is today occupied by one United States rather than a constellation of disunited ones, and Barak Obama is its president.

“Mandela, like Lincoln, achieved the historically rare feat of uniting a fiercely divided country,” Carlin wrote. “ The feat is rare because what ordinary politicians have always done is seek power by highlighting difference and fueling antagonism. Mandela sought it by appealing to people’s common humanity.” So did Lincoln.

The analogy is timely. 150 years ago this week 50 000 Americans were killed, wounded or went missing in three days of self-inflicted butchery at Gettysburg 140 kms north of Washington. It was a turning point in the country’s civil war, on a par, perhaps, with the official South African view of Cuito Cuanavale. The southern states who had rebelled to preserve and extend slavery would thenceforth be on the defensive until they laid down their arms in April 1865.

Four months after the battle, Lincoln went to consecrate the cemetery to which the northern dead were being transferred. He had been invited to say “a few appropriate words”. He obliged with 272 of the finest ever penned by any politician in the English language.

The war, Lincoln said, would decide whether Americans were going to live up to the ideals of the 1776 Declaration of Independence – “all men are created equal” — or, and this he left unspoken, down to the compromises adopted in the 1787 constitution which countenanced the enslavement of Africans and their treatment as property.

Lincoln did not depict the struggle as a contest between good “us” and bad “them”. He did not speak of enemies and traitors. He did not trumpet the North’s victory. He did not wave slavery in the South’s face. As a private citizen he might gladly have done all these things.

Instead, as a president set on saving his nation, he cast the conflict as an experiment in which all citizens of the United States – and as far as he was concerned southern rebels were still just as much citizens as northerners – were “testing” whether “a nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” could “long endure”.

No one who died at Gettysburg, he concluded, would have done so in vain if, as a result, “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

In the arena, neither Lincoln or Mandela were pacifists. They are not to be confused with Martin Luther King or the Mahatma. They were warriors when they felt they had to be, but reluctant ones, keenly aware that violence, however nobly undertaken, takes on a terrible logic of its own, thwarting its original intent and creating opportunities for the kind of people, often unsavory, who are good at it.

Lincoln, like Mandela, knew that to the bind up America’s wounds he had to help his countrymen to a shared understanding of the conflict that would break the nexus of rage and fear, killing and retribution.

In the Gettysburg Address he spoke of the good that might come of both sides’ sacrifice. Sixteen months later, at his second inauguration in March 1865, in the closing weeks of the war, he spoke of it in the then shared language of the Bible as punishment meted out by divine providence “to both North and South…as the woe due to those by whom the offence (slavery) came”.

He died by an assassin’s bullet on April 15. Had he lived to oversee post-war reconstruction, would the country have taken as long to heal as it has? It’s impossible to say. But as Carlin points out, neither Mandela nor Lincoln should be judged by the failings, real or perceived, of their successors. The “deeper legacy” of both is the example they set.

Mandela’s “imperishable lesson for the ages” , Carlin wrote, is that “it is possible to be a great human being and a great politician at the same time” and that “showing respect to friend and enemies alike can get you a long, long way”. The same is true of Lincoln.

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