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Sharswood Fellow Matiangai Sirleaf reflects on the legacy of Nelson Mandela

December 06, 2013

Reflections on Madiba’s Legacy”

Matiangai Sirleaf is a Sharswood Fellow in International Law at the University of Pennslvyania Law School.

At times like these we are reminded of our own inadequacies. To say that we have lost a great light would be a gross understatement. Madiba’s life and legacy stretches far beyond the borders of South Africa. His life has touched and inspired countless around the globe. 

I am still coming to terms with the sense of utter loss and bewilderment I feel over someone I have never actually met. Madiba’s death leaves a deep lacuna. We mourn his passing for selfish reasons - wanting to keep him here with us even though he has lived an extraordinary life and accomplished more than any of us could dream.  He was the embodiment of beauty. As one of my mentors, James Silk, eloquently stated, “We are diminished because a world short on beauty is today less beautiful.”

Madiba’s legacy includes re-conceptualizing how we conceive of justice. The apartheid regime deprived millions of South Africans of their basic human dignity. After spearheading the peaceful transition to democracy in South Africa from white-only rule, instead of exacting vengeance through war crimes tribunals or worse, Madiba was influential in establishing the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The Commission was based on the principles of ubuntuUbuntu loosely translated means that my humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up, in others. 

Madiba’s life embodied the principles of ubuntu, which include reciprocity, inclusiveness, forgiveness, and reconciliation. South Africa’s truth commission aimed to achieve these restorative justice goals by combining elements of public truth-seeking, victim-offender confrontation, public apology, and historical accounting. This method of responding to mass violence has been emulated in many other societies, including Kenya, South Korea, Sierra Leone, Ecuador, the Solomon Islands, and Honduras. While a number of truth commissions preceded the commission in South Africa, none have received the global attention and near universal acclaim of South Africa’s. 

Madiba’s life and legacy can also be seen in the South African Constitution and the Constitutional Court of South Africa. Both embody the transformative vision Madiba held for a more equitable and just South Africa. The South African Constitution guarantees the civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights that Madiba dedicated so many years of his life fighting for. The Constitution recognizes the indivisibility of human rights and the meaninglessness of pursuing redress for the breach of civil and political rights while socioeconomic and cultural structures remain untouched. 

The Constitutional Court of South Africa is well regarded for its independence and its genuine commitment to using international law, especially international human rights law, in its judicial decisions. It was built symbolically on the grounds of a former prison, which at different times held both Mahatma Ghandi and Nelson Mandela. I was fortunate to serve on the Court as a foreign law clerk to the former Chief Justice Sandile Ngcobo. There I was able to witness how the Court grappled with actualizing human rights principles and making these norms influence and transform peoples’ lived realities. 

Madiba’s leadership is perhaps one of his greatest legacies. As the leader and moral compass for one of the greatest human rights struggles of our time, he represents all that we hold so dear; our best selves. His decision to limit his own executive power by only staying in office for one term and to support a Constitution, which made Parliament the center of governmental power, would have been unthinkable to many a politician in his position. But Madiba’s commitment to constitutionalism, judicial independence, and a limited executive was demonstrated on numerous occasions during his presidency. 

Madiba spent more than 27 years imprisoned on Robben Island, considered a criminal for his resistance against the apartheid regime.  Today apartheid is considered a crime against humanity. I take comfort in knowing that Madiba’s life and legacy have inspired a generation of like-minded individuals committed to the struggle for freedom, justice, equality, and human rights.