On July 18, the world celebrated Nelson Mandela’s legacy on the centenary of his birth.
There are lessons still to be drawn by the Arab world from the life and vision of the South African icon. Mandela’s message of freedom and equality reverberates in this region and beyond.
His legacy was celebrated the same week that Israel adopted a controversial law consecrating the second-class status of its Arab citizens. Mandela, a strong advocate of Palestinian self-determination, would have denounced Israel’s discriminatory move.
The South African leader is also remembered for his advocacy of peaceful reconciliation. His magnanimity towards his former jailers offers a template for many in this part of the world who hold age-old grudges and give in to vindictive reflexes.
After years of war and bloodshed, it will not come easy for certain groups in the region to live by Mandela’s example. It won’t be easy to open a new chapter, one that goes beyond sectarian, tribal and ideological divides and is not formed by memories of past oppression.
But the bitterness of the past does not have to preclude possibilities for the future. Mandela has shown it can be done.
However, reconciliation is a prerequisite for conflict resolution, political transition and reconstruction. The “Towards National Reconciliation in Libya” project is an example of a UN-sponsored programme struggling to gain traction because of the lack of national cohesion among Libyans and of central authority.
A well laid-out reconciliation process could ensure the stability necessary to allow for the electoral process. Counting on elections to be carried out in an orderly manner despite simmering feuds is unrealistic at best and probably counterproductive, too. An election in an unreconciled country could lead to further instability and unrest.
Beyond elections and political transitions is that greater challenge of social and economic development. The failure to achieve progress on that front is fuelling unrest in the Arab world.
Mandela’s South Africa still needs to address the issue.
As the South Africa Reconciliation Barometer survey found over the years since the country’s first non-racial elections, South Africans are acutely aware of the socio-economic divide even though Apartheid is gone. Last year’s survey indicated that 61% of South Africans asked said they agreed that “reconciliation is impossible as long as people who were disadvantaged under apartheid continue to be poor.”
And they are.
Data from 2017 show that approximately 95% of South Africa’s wealth is in the hands of 10% of the population. For those born in poverty, the chances of growing up to be poor are about 90%. Only 4% of children in school can hope to receive a university degree. And so it goes on. South Africa still needs to bring about socio-economic reconciliation. So too do many parts of the Arab world.
Unrest in the Middle East and North Africa region shows the extent of social, economic and gender disparities, which breed frustration among the marginalised. The latest eruptions have been in Iraq’s eastern and southern provinces. Suffering the extreme heat of summer, electricity cuts made life particularly unbearable in the past few weeks.
Whether in Iraq or in other parts of the Arab world, the root cause of discontent goes much deeper than soaring summer temperatures.
There is a new generation in the Middle East and North Africa, one that is not willing to accept anything less than real, measurable improvement of their lives. They require this of their leaders. More than ever, they will protest if their demands are not met.
In Iraq, where 60% of the population is under 24, too many young people are disheartened by the way things are. Too many young Iraqis are disillusioned about the future. That’s because Iraq presents a particularly striking paradox. Oil, which provides 89% of state earnings and 99% of export revenues, accounts for just 1% of jobs.
For years, young Iraqis expressed scepticism about politicians’ ability to solve their problems. Earlier this year, many abstained from voting in the general election.
As in other parts of the region, Iraqi leaders have been promising state cash to extinguish the fires of protest. Such promises won’t appease Iraq’s disgruntled youth; nor will police arrests or internet disruptions by the state.
Far more palatable would be an inclusive vision that guarantees socio-economic opportunities to all. That would be the most crucial lesson for the MENA region from Mandela’s extraordinary life and message.