Mandela's presidency defined by reconciliation, says Emory's van der Vyver

Dec. 9, 2013

Johan van der Vyver, I.T. Cohen Professor of International Law and Human Rights at Emory Law, is a native of South Africa and long known as an advocate for human rights worldwide.  

Van der Vyver was fired from his professorship at the University of Pochefstroom in the 1970s for his criticisms of the government’s apartheid policy and thereafter launched a campaign of human rights and constitutional reform. He organized the first human rights conference in Cape Town in 1979 and delivered a series of award-winning lectures on human rights that are anchor texts for the new South Africa.  

Below, van der Vyver shares his memories of Nelson Mandela's presidency and leadership through reconciliation.  

"As president of South Africa, Nelson Mandela's primary concerns were focused on promoting reconciliation in a highly divided community, which was evidenced by much of his political career of the 1990s.  

Publicity has been given to his ground-breaking intervention at the 1995 rugby world cup final in Johannesburg, where he, for the first time in South Africa’s history, united the entire South African population in their uncompromising support of the national sports teams of the country.  

But there were many more such initiatives worth recording to his honor.  

Shortly after taking up the reigns of the presidency of the Republic of South Africa, Mr. Mandela arranged a tea party on the lawn of the Union Building in Pretoria for the widows of political personalities of all races and alliances who had passed away. This was the first time in the lives of many of the women present on that day where they sat down at the same table and socialized with members of races other than their own.  

There were two widows who could not travel to Pretoria for the occasion because they were already quite elderly. The one was the widow of the ANC (African National Congress) leader of the 1950s, Albert Luthuli, who in 1958 became the very first South African recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. He was awarded the prize in recognition of his efforts to bring about change in South Africa through peaceful means.  

Mr. Luthuli was killed by a train many years ago when he tried to cross the railway lines on his way home. When Mr. Mandela learned that Mrs. Luthuli could not venture the long trip from Stanger at the KwaZulu-Natal coast to Pretoria, he said: 'No problem, I will have tea and spend time with her at her home in Stanger' — which he then did.  

The other person, at the time already 96 years of age, who could not travel to Pretoria was Mrs. Betsie Verwoerd, the widow of President H.F. Verwoerd who as Minister of “Native Affairs” in the 1950s (and later president of the country) was the architect of the government policy of separate development (apartheid).  

Needless to say, Dr. Verwoerd was despised by almost the entire African community. Mrs. Verwoerd lived in a village called Orania in the Free State which was purchased by a consortium of white racists under leadership of the son-in-law of Mrs. Verwoerd, and where even today blacks are not allowed. 'No problem,' said Mr. Mandela, 'I will travel to Orania and have tea and spend some time with Mrs. Verwoerd' — which again he did.  

Can anyone imagine what effect this gesture of Madiba had on the white community? When his presidency of South Africa became a foregone conclusion, gallop polls showed that approximately 15 percent of the white population proclaimed that they would feel comfortable under his rule. Within a period of six months, that percentage increased to 85 percent."