Americans and people worldwide are alarmed, even despairing, at our world’s rise in violent conflict. Amid Russia’s assault on Ukraine and yet another brutal spasm of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, people are rightly asking what changes our governments and communities need to halt this spread of bloodshed, notes Ambassador Johnnie Carson, a dean of diplomacy and peacebuilding. Days from now, the world will mark 10 years since the death of Nelson Mandela, the liberation leader, South African president and Nobel Peace Prize laureate. Mandela’s example, Carson says, offers reminders of what we need today to turn back the tide of warfare.

A statue of former President Nelson Mandela stands in South Africa’s executive capital, Pretoria. Mandela rejected the hatreds of the conflict into which he was born to lead his country toward peace and democracy. (Daniel Berehulak /The New York Times)
A statue of former President Nelson Mandela stands in South Africa’s executive capital, Pretoria. Mandela rejected the hatreds of the conflict into which he was born to lead his country toward peace and democracy. (Daniel Berehulak /The New York Times)

As the U.S. Institute of Peace this week holds the second in its Mandela Series of lectures and seminars, the world has seen steady increases in violent conflict since 2019, according to the Global Peace Index research project. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine only added to the surges in violence in several African countries and Myanmar last year. This year, worldwide incidents of political violence had risen 27% by July over the level in the 12 months ending a year earlier, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project. The past weeks’ renewed warfare in Israel and Gaza only heightens this trauma.

Ambassador Carson first worked in Africa in the 1960s, when white-ruled, apartheid South Africa had just imprisoned Nelson Mandela, then a young lawyer and African National Congress activist, for life, convicting him of sabotage, conspiracy and treason against the apartheid state. Over his decades of diplomacy in Africa, including as assistant secretary of state for African affairs (2009-2013), Carson watched South Africa’s evolution and Mandela’s career.

Ambassador, Nelson Mandela ultimately led in peacefully resolving a decades-long conflict in South Africa rooted in its European colonial rule and then its apartheid regime. What did he bring to that entrenched conflict that we need to be applying to the warfare we see rising now?

Nelson Mandela’s essential qualities were his commitment to building a fair and just society and his ability to rise above the injustice into which he had been born. When international sanctions and economic and political pressures forced the white-minority government to begin considering reforms to a racist system, Mandela sustained his insistence on justice, but he made clear that he did not intend to improve the lives of Black South Africans at the expense of Whites. The government was forced to release him in 1990 after holding him in prison for 27 years, and many people expected Mandela to emerge from that ordeal expressing hatred and anger toward his longtime captors. But he quickly spoke of reconciliation rather than retribution, and of his commitment to fairness for every person, regardless of color, religion or ethnic background.

This act of “rising above” established his moral authority in a way that few leaders can do. That is what gave Mandela a foundation on which to negotiate — with the white South African president, F.W. de Klerk — the terms of a peaceful resolution for which they, together, were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

This last point is vital, as we look at so many conflicts today. Even leaders who have established that moral authority — as the Mahatma Gandhi did in India, as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. did in the American civil rights movement — even leaders of this stature need partners across the line of conflict with whom they can negotiate the justice and lay the ground for reconciliation. The Nobel committee recognized that reality in awarding the peace prize to both Mandela and de Klerk for, as it said, “their work for the peaceful termination of the apartheid regime, and for laying the foundations for a new democratic South Africa.”

You mention Gandhi and Dr. King, and of course they both are seen internationally as peacebuilding leaders who changed the world and the century in which they lived. What is it that they shared, in your view, that allowed them to build such legacies?

This is not easy, but it is simple. Those who desire and seek peace, those who lead the human effort to make their communities and societies fairer and more just, come from all around the world. The desire for peace based on that justice is universal and can be found among all men and women of good will. Those who become our greatest champions, with the greatest global impact, can rise from the poverty and oppression of apartheid in South Africa, from the sunbaked plains of central India, or from the church pews of the American South. Gandhi, King, Mandela and other champions rise above the challenges and oppressions that they and their people face to lead us to a more peaceful, just and fair way forward.

And how do they — how do we — do it? Our voices of peace and justice, when they express that universal desire, when they rise above the parochial lines of conflict amid which they are born, are precisely the voices that can become audible to others of good will across those lines of conflict and can then bring reconciliation that reverberates among the world’s peoples and nations. Just four weeks from today, on December 5, we will see the 10th anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s death. And it is this universality of the possibility for peace, if we will “rise above,” that we can carry in distilling a meaning from his life.

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