Liberia must join the people of South Africa and the world in the applause for Africa’s icon extraordinary, who lived a life of exemplary service. But we must do more than applauding.
We must introspect. We must retrospect. We must say to ourselves: what does all of this mean to me, to Liberia today, especially the up and coming generation? Are there lessons to be learnt? What might those lessons be?
At least two lessons come to mind –(1) the lesson of liberation in general and the African liberation struggle in particular, and (2) the lesson of post-conflict truth and reconciliation.
On the Liberation front, a towering figure, a man of vision, uncommon courage, and of humanity, has fallen. The Republic of Liberia engaged this man and his movement from its very incipiency. The liberation of the people of South Africa from the shackles of apartheid became as much the business of South Africans as the business of Liberians. The struggle was waged on many fronts – the diplomatic, the legal, and through armed struggle.
From that day in 1946 when the United Nations inscribed on its General Assembly agenda the topic “The Treatment of Indians in the Union of South Africa” to the 1952 transmuting of that topic into “The Policy of Apartheid of the Government of South Africa,” Liberia was an integral part of the common effort.
In fact, before the onset of African decolonization in the late 1950s, Liberia led the charge for Africa in various international forums. Under the leadership of President William V.S. Tubman, and subsequently President William R. Tolbert, Jr, such diplomatic stalwarts as Secretary of State Momolu Dukuly, Secretary of State J. Rudolph Grimes, Foreign Minister C. Cecil Dennis, Ambassador Henry Ford Cooper, Special Envoy C. Abayomi Cassell, and Ambassador Angie Brooks led the charge at the level of diplomacy. Dr. Rocheforte L. Weeks and Ambassador Edward R. Moore represented Liberia when there was the need to resort to the International Court of Justice. And when Africa through the OAU resolved “to buy arms for the freedom fighters and give them all necessary military training in camps to be established in various independent African countries, and to offer them shelter and transit on their way to launch a full-scale “guerilla war against colonial regimes and the white minority governments,” Liberia was there in the front row of that effort.
That was not all. Liberia took on the related question of South West Africa/Namibia. In concert with others, notably Ethiopia, Liberia again employed law, diplomacy and military coercion to attempt to end South Africa’s oppression in neighboring Namibia.
And when Liberia and Ethiopia failed to receive legal remedy in their contentious proceedings at the International Court of Justice against South Africa, they resorted to a combination of diplomacy and force. SWAPO and its leader Sam Nujoma (later the first President of Namibia) worked with Liberian diplomats and other officials to produce what eventuated in Namibian independence in March 1990.
The second lesson we must learn is the lesson of post-conflict truth and post-conflict reconciliation.
After 27 years in prison, Nelson Mandela was released in February 1990. He and his ANC colleagues worked in concert with others, notably a reforming/transforming apartheid government then led by President Frederik de Klerk, to transition South Africa from oppression to freedom.
Soon there was a country to govern, there were wounds to be healed, and there were compromises to be made. Remember the racial, cultural, and religious diversity that is South Africa. These required accommodation, unending negotiations. A model design of a truth and reconciliation process ensued, and was led by that other great South African, Archbishop Desmond Tutu. A “Rainbow Nation” sums it all up. Challenges remain, of course, but the social fundamentals seem in place, seem established.
What I am suggesting in these brief remarks is that we take home two lessons as we celebrate the passing of this great African freedom fighter and champion of reconciliation: One, the imperative of liberation from oppression, our country’s historic role in the African liberation struggle, but also our own historic engagement in this land with liberation from oppressive governance and armed insurgency.
The second and closely related lesson is what we do with ourselves as a people once liberated. Remember that once liberated, South Africa reconciled.
I think Liberia is at that historic turning point in its embrace of democracy. How then shall we live? How now do we reconcile? What do we reconcile? Why do we reconcile? Have we yet taken our truth and reconciliation process to its logical conclusion?
I find no better time to raise such questions than in the shadows of Africa’s great freedom fighter, but also Africa’s most ardent reconciler, Nelson Mandela.
Excerpts of Remarks by Dr. D. Elwood Dunn at the Memorial Service for Nelson Mandela, Centennial Pavilion, Tuesday, December 10, 2013