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Ramin Jahanbegloo on Mandela's Lessons for Iran

December 7, 2013
Azadeh Moaveni
6 min read
Ramin Jahanbegloo on Mandela's Lessons for Iran
Ramin Jahanbegloo on Mandela's Lessons for Iran

The Islamic Republic's relationship with Nelson Mandela's legacy will arguably be fraught. The Ayatollah Khomeini was a staunch critic of apartheid South Africa, but in recent years, young Iranians seeking democratic reform of Iran have found great inspiration in Mandela's strategy of nonviolent change. South Africa's transition, under Mandela's moral authority and political vision, from a fractured, oppressive state to a struggling but very real democracy, offers lessons to any nation facing a similar challenge. I spoke to Ramin Jahanbegloo, Iran's pre-eminent modern philosopher now living in exile in Canada, about how Iranians can consider Mandela's life in the context of their own struggle, and what lessons they can glean about the psychology of forgiveness and the political art of brokering unity. 

Like any iconic global figure, Mandela means different things to different people. What about his legacy do you think can be most relevant for Iranians, who also struggle with living in a divided society and lack such a unifying moral figure?

I think the most important legacy of Mandela for Iranians is not only his nonviolent struggle for reconciliation and forgiveness in South Africa, but his efforts to unite a divided society. What Mandela showed us was that no country could step toward democratic reconstruction without an effort of reconciliation. For Mandela reconciliation was related to several other themes such as remembering, healing and justice. So unlike what many Iranians might think, Mandela’s strategy of reconciliation and forgiveness was not just a process of pardoning or absolving offenses of the Apartheid regime or giving up on the past actions of the political criminals in South Africa. It was mainly overcoming the spirit of hatred and division and mistrust. This is what we need today in Iran. A spirit of reconciliation which can overcome the dominant fear and mistrust inscribed in the Iranian body politics.

One of Mandela's most remarkable qualities was his refusal to hate the white South Africans he opposed politically. Do you think that was a reflection of his temperament or part of a political vision that realised how destructive hatred was to progress?

It is interesting that even during the sabotage campaign of the ANC against the Apartheid regime in the early 1960s, Mandela underlined the fact that struggle against a dictatorship should not involve loss of lives and it should “keep bitterness at a minimum level”. Of course, he could have foreseen that during his years in prison, the Spear of the Nation, referred to as MK, would embrace a doctrine committed to the violent overthrow of the Apartheid regime. However, his political evolution and his embracement of the Gandhian principles during his 27 years of imprisonment, empowered him with a new strategy of dialogue and negotiation which ended his presidency in 1994 and with the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions headed by Archbishop Tutu. 

Something striking about Mandela, similar to Gandhi, is that he has long inspired great loyalty and respect across the political and class spectrum in his home country. How did he manage to appeal so widely, bridging so many divides?

This reminds me of a saying by Confucius: “Respect yourself and others will respect you.” I think Mandela always had a great respect for his struggle for freedom and for South Africa, not to say a respect for the whole world. And this sense of respect is partly the outcome of his Ubuntu philosophy. Ubuntu could be roughly translated as “human kindness”. The Ubuntu philosophy says: “I am what I am because of who we all are”. It’s a powerful thinking which helped Mandela to rebuild South Africa in the direction of reconciliation and unity. The practice of Ubuntu helped him to support the concept that everyone is part of the whole. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu stated: “A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed.” This is the exact description of Mandela as an affectionate human being and as a great politician.

Do you think there is anything Iranians can learn from Mandela's approach of pursuing democracy and justice first? This idea that economic justice and political stability should not be an ends in themselves but must evolve out of a democratic transition?

Iranians can learn a lot of things from Mandela. Maybe the first thing to learn is to be humble. We rarely have humble politicians. Humility goes hand in hand with creating trust among the people. Secondly, what Iranians can learn from Mandela is the concept of “common home”. A nation is a common home. A common home is not only a place where we have common recollections. It’s also a space where we live together. What Mandela showed the world is that that if a nation decides to have a space of togetherness and plurality, it needs to take its guns and its knives and throw them into the sea. I think it is time for Iranians as a nation to emerge from the darkest night of violence into the brightest dawn of reconciliation and nonviolence.

If Iranians should think most closely about an act, a remark, or a political alliance that Mandela made, that would be instructive to them, as they consider his legacy, does any particular detail or moment come to mind?

The one major lesson we need to learn from Mandela is that political alliance and national reconciliation is a platform to pursue the objective of building a more truthful and fair society. Mandela’s aim was not to replace a white dictatorship with a black one. His aim was a democratic South Africa. Mandela showed the required statesmanship to reach a political negotiation with de Klerk. He wanted a true government of national unity and his cabinet included ministers from other political parties. He even used sports to unite a truly Rainbow Nation.  What is fascinating about Mandela and instructive for us as Iranians is that he struggled all his life for a multi-racial and democratic society, even when he was on trial. We should not forget what he said in the 1963 Rivonia Trial: "I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities." He realized this dream 30 years later. But the hallmark of Mandela's mission was to try to heal the wounds of his nation. I think this is the greatest legacy of Mandela for Iran and Iranians today. We should repeat with Mandela: “This strife among ourselves wastes our energy and destroys our unity.”