Nelson Mandela and Africa’s Contribution to the Culture of Peace


As the other peace leaders in this month’s CPNN bulletin testify, Nelson Mandela provided us a model of leadership for a culture of peace. He left us “a vision of a new and better life and the tools with which to win and build it.”

20 years ago in Psychology for Peace Activists, I wrote: “At the present moment of history it is possible that an additional step is being added to those of consciousness development: a step of vision. Mandela exemplifies a new generation of peace activists whose actions provide a vision for a peaceful world. Not content to struggle against the vicious, anti-human system of apartheid, Mandela and his fellow activists in the ANC had the courage and foresight to develop the Freedom Charter which provides not only a vision for South Africa, but by extension for the rest of the world as well.

“As Mandela describes, the Freedom Charter was developed by a process that evoked suggestions from ordinary people throughout the country. The responded to a call asking them ‘How would you set about making South Africa a happy place for all the people who live in it?’ The Freedom Charter ‘captured the hopes and dreams of the people, and acted as a blueprint for the liberation struggle and the future of the nation.’

“The vision in the Freedom Charter is remarkably similar to that of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which was formulated in those years by the United Nations. It is at once specific and universal, practical and visionary.

“The vision of the Freedom Charter was further elaborated later by the ANC in preparation for the first free elections in South Africa. As Mandela says, ‘Some in the ANC wanted to make the campaign simply a liberation election and tell the people vote for us because we set you free. We decided instead to offer them a vision of the South Africa we hoped to create.’

“Today, to paraphrase Mandela, peace activists can do more than just be against the war system, but they can at the same time act to bring a universal vision closer to reality. In opposing the culture of war, today’s activist can help construct a culture of peace.”

It is not by accident that the vision of a culture of peace should come from Africa. The expansion of the culture of war and its monopolization by empires and states did not take place in Africa; instead it was imposed on Africa by Islam and the European colonial powers. The difference can be seen in the pre-colonial traditions of African justice, as exemplified in recent years by the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that took place under Mandela’s presidency in South Africa. Pre-colonial African justice was not like the justice as developed by monotheistic empires in which the state seeks out the suspect, finds the person guilty and punishes the criminal in the name of the law. Instead, African pre-colonial justice was arrived at through a process of dialogue of the entire community gathered perhaps under the community tree. As I learned from one culture when I worked in Mozambique, “we take whatever time is needed to find a solution to a conflict that is acceptable to everyone. Even if it takes a long time, the milano [the process] does not rot.”

As I concluded in my blog of August 2012, “we should recognize that the African people, with their unique peace-making traditions, can make a major contribution to the world historical transition to a culture of peace.