Almost ten years separate the deaths of Nelson Mandela and Henry Kissinger. They both strode the world stage and left an indelible mark on the second half of the 20th century. Mandela was born in the dying days of the First World War, in which, being barred from carrying weapons, black South Africans served in France as non-combatants in the National Labour Service. Kissinger was born barely 5 years later in Weimar Germany, chafing at its defeat and looking for scapegoats.  As a young firebrand in the ANC in the 1940s and 1950s, Mandela took up the armed struggle against apartheid, while Kissinger fled Nazi Germany for the US in 1938. Both won the Nobel Peace Prize, and yet they could not have been more different in their life experiences, their principles and their legacies.

Mandela was a global icon; some even described him as a saint. He spurned the moniker, though: a saint he was not, he said, unless a saint is a sinner who keeps on trying.  He was a

Kissinger built his legacy at the height of the Cold War in a context very different from the one Mandela stepped into when he emerged from prison. Kissinger was driven by the need to contain the Soviet Union; South Africa, together with China, were part of his grand strategy as America fought for geopolitical advantage in the aftermath of its defeat in Vietnam.

Mandela’s struggle–his long walk to freedom–was first and foremost about ending apartheid in South Africa, bringing freedom and democracy to all, and ridding society of racism and sexism. But his struggle had global resonance, too, and inspired many in the developing world and elsewhere. In his 1993 Nobel acceptance speech, he said: “This must be a world of democracy and respect for human rights, a world freed from the horrors of poverty, hunger, deprivation and ignorance, relieved of the threat and the scourge of civil wars and external aggression and unburdened of the great tragedy of millions forced to become refugees.”

A decade after Mandela’s passing, the values he embodied are in short supply. In 2023, the world has drifted back into geopolitical camps; human rights, justice and international law play second fiddle to narrow and often short-sighted interests, while the rise of ultra-right nationalism and religious fundamentalism recalls an earlier time which many had hoped we would never see again. Nonetheless, a great deal can still be gleaned from Mandela’s legacy.

The early 1990s was a time of optimism when it looked as though many of the world’s intractable conflicts would really end. South Africa became the poster child for that promise, but there was also progress in other conflicts. In Southern Africa, Namibia, which South Africa had administered illegally since 1966, gained independence, while the warring parties in Angola (the MPLA and UNITA) reached a modicum of—albeit short-lived–peace. Elsewhere, in the Middle East, the world pinned its hopes to the Oslo peace accords in September 1993. In April 1994, South Africa would hold its first democratic elections and many people old and young who had never voted in their lives would stand in long queues for hours to cast their ballot for the African National Congress and Mandela.

In contrast, while South Africans were jubilant, Rwandans were living the horror of a genocide, while war was still raging in Bosnia. A year later, in 1995, the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin was a first blow against the possibility of peace in Israel and Palestine.

A blueprint for conflict resolution

South Africa followed a different path, one that avoided civil war, built strong democratic institutions, and maintained a vibrant civil society. Although there was much to do at home, Mandela did not believe the country should turn inward at the moment of its readmission to the community of nations. The debt it owed the world for its solidarity with the anti-apartheid struggle placed an obligation on South Africa to be a responsible international citizen. Mandela emphasised that point in his seminal article for Foreign Affairs in 1993, adding that a central goal of South Africa’s foreign policy would be to ‘promote institutions and forces that, through democratic means, seek to make the world safe for diversity.’ Human rights would be the light that guided South Africa’s foreign policy, while peace should be the goal of all countries, to be achieved through non-violent means.

South Africa’s own transition was considered an example that could be transposed onto other conflicts, especially in Africa; negotiated settlements, with all the internal stakeholders at the table to ensure a domestically-generated and -owned outcome, and a process of truth and reconciliation. Thus it was that South Africa tried to mediate and bring peace and justice to the Congo and the Great Lakes. Mandela sought to broker an agreement between Zairean president Mobutu sese Seko and Laurent Kabila in 1996, and South Africa remained involved for many years in facilitating peace talks between the warring parties, providing support for elections, and training public servants among others. Taking advantage of the ANC’s links with Sinn Fein and the IRA, Mandela hosted a round of peace talks in Cape Town in 1997 to help bring peace to Northern Ireland. His own message of reconciliation helped convince Unionists of his good offices.

In the international arena, Mandela’s undertaking that South Africa would be a responsible global citizen saw the country play an active role in many multilateral processes. Among the most notable in the 1990s were its critical negotiating role in the adoption of the Ottawa Convention banning land mines and the Review of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. In his first speech to the UNGA as president, Mandela placed on the agenda the need to reform the UN so as ‘to inspire greater confidence in itself among all the member nations and to reflect better the impulse towards the democratization of international relations.’ He called on the UN ‘to continue looking at itself to determine what restructuring of itself it should effect.’ Mandela believed that South Africa should use its unique position to engage with the North constructively in redressing poverty and inequality. The reform of international institutions, to better reflect the shifts in global power as well as the needs of developing countries, has been a central tenet of South Africa’s foreign policy since then. An international system in which developing countries have a stronger voice and are able to set the agenda would be fairer, more just and equitable.

Mandela’s approach came to define the South African approach. South Africans who had played an important role in the transition, either as negotiators or judges who investigated the perpetrators of violence, were also sought after in other international processes. Justice Richard Goldstone, who would later become a member of SA’s Constitutional Court, was appointed the first chief prosecutor of the UN International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and for Rwanda. Later, the chief negotiators of South Africa’s transition, the ANC’s Cyril Ramaphosa and the National Party’s Roelf Meyer, would become involved in a number of peace initiatives including in Northern Ireland and Sri Lanka.

However, the soaring idealism in Mandela’s Foreign Affairs article proved more difficult to realize consistently than the country’s model of conflict resolution. Of course, this was a challenge common to other countries’ foreign policies, too, but Mandela’s iconic status plus SA’s peaceful transformation into a constitutional democracy had placed the country on a moral pedestal, against which it has been judged continuously ever since. At the Commonwealth Heads of State summit in 1995, Mandela condemned the Nigerian regime of Sani Abacha for its execution of Ken Saro-wiwa, but failed to build up support for this position among other regional states. This left South Africa isolated and contributed to the ‘quiet diplomacy’ approach it would subsequently take to conflicts in Africa—an approach that would also see SA critiqued for enabling authoritarian regimes to continue to behave with impunity.

Although Mandela was a colossus in the west, he and the country had a much more difficult relationship with other African leaders. Yes, the Frontline States had provided support to the national liberation movements against apartheid, but leaders such as Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe feared being eclipsed in the region by the ‘new kid on the block.’ South Africa was, after all, the dominant economy in the region by a considerable margin, with substantial political and diplomatic heft and the associated concerns about its hegemonic status in the region, though South Africa has taken pains to avoid the role of regional ‘big brother’.

Thirty years on, South Africa is increasingly facing challenges in its own region from Nigeria to Egypt, Angola to Kenya. In many respects, South Africa’s slippage as a regional leader is not because Mandela is no longer a guiding light of its foreign policy, but because the country’s internal economic dynamism and moral standing as an exemplar for good governance have not fulfilled the promise of the Mandela years.

The twilight years

Mandela also believed that South Africa had a responsibility to lead by example, exercising accountable governance and implementing prudent political and economic policies. He did not regard himself as above the law and believed that accountable government is good government. He was an intentional one-term president in a continent where incumbents often have to be forcibly removed from office even after the mandatory two terms.

After he stepped down as president, Mandela took over as facilitator of the Burundi peace talks in 2000; in 2007, he founded the Elders, a group of former leaders working for peace, justice, human rights and a sustainable planet. In 2009 the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution declaring 18 July Nelson Mandela International Day in recognition of his ‘leading role in and support for Africa’s struggle for liberation and Africa’s unity and his outstanding contribution to the creation of a non-racial, non-sexist, democratic South Africa,’ as well as his ‘humanitarianism in the fields of conflict resolution, race relations, promotion and protection of human rights, reconciliation, gender equality and the rights of children and other vulnerable groups’.

When Nelson Mandela died on Dec 5, he left a powerful legacy. He showed that the impossible is possible, that intractable conflicts can be resolved peacefully provided there is willingness on all sides, that a leader can inspire reconciliation even in the most divided societies, and that fighting for justice is not optional. Still, the often saintly image risks simplifying a complex personality, a man with his own foibles who made political compromises, balancing the imperatives of power and Realpolitik with the values he became known for. Thirty years into South Africa’s democracy, many regard the country’s current challenges–high unemployment, especially among youth, poverty and a still unequal distribution of economic prosperity–as the result of his compromises at the negotiating table. Younger generations see him as a sell-out, but he was a pragmatist and an astute politician; he recognised that his chosen path of negotiation and reconciliation was far better than a civil war which would destroy the country and leave nothing upon which to build.

When he stepped down as president, the country was already making inroads into addressing the significant socio-economic inequities of apartheid. Its voice was respected in international fora and it stood as an example that others could follow. In the ensuing years, the honeymoon at an end, we have taken wrong turns, allowing corruption and impunity to fester. We have also been unable to address entrenched structural economic barriers to create a more inclusive society, and we have seen the rise of parties and factions that believe populist solutions can overcome. These do not detract from what Nelson Mandela achieved. They highlight that the road to equality and justice is never easy, and that South Africa’s own transformation in 1994 was not a miracle; it was the result of the commitment of many to staying the course.

In the current geopolitical milieu, it is important to recall the value of moral leadership in approaching the complex challenges facing the world, from the conflicts in the Ukraine and Gaza to climate change, inequality and sustainable development.

*Elisavet Sidiropoulou is Chief Executive, South African Institute of International Affairs