The Springboks national rugby team was the pride of white South Africa, and a despised reminder of apartheid to black South Africans. It was, therefore, a gutsy and psychologically profound move for recently elected President Nelson Mandela to host the 1995 Rugby World Cup and don the green Springboks jersey for the final game between South Africa and New Zealand. Pulling what had been symbolic of deep divisions between blacks and whites over his head signaled two critical things. To white South Africans Mandela said, “You have a place in our new country." To black South Africans he said, “It’s time to move forward." The Springboks won, and South Africans of all races celebrated their first truly national victory.
How humans evolved to cooperate with each other is a major puzzle. In recent years, theorists have argued that the key to cooperation may reside in the development of a strong sense of justice and a thirst to avenge injustice. If humans have an urge to punish people who harm others and who shirk their duties, it fundamentally changes the decision-making calculus. Decisions that would otherwise benefit individuals at other peoples’ expense are no longer optimal if they are likely to result in punishment. Punishment, whether in the form of revenge or delivered by a third party, raises the costs of selfish and harmful behavior to a point where cooperative dispositions might evolve.
The urge to punish harm doers and restore justice by retribution certainly appears to be deeply ingrained in the human psyche. It may even be a central foundation of morality. And ordinarily, punishment helps societies to function cooperatively.
In 1995, however, Nelson Mandela knew that his country faced extraordinary times. He knew that the human desire to re-establish justice following injustice, which normally keeps societies intact, would rip his apart. As apartheid ended in South Africa, there was a very real possibility that the country would collapse into civil war, as communities driven by revenge and by fear of revenge attacked one another. Mandela held South Africa together by eschewing retribution, and persuading others to do the same.
In that time and that place, there was a higher morality than the desire to attain justice. Where there were far too many wrongs than could ever be righted, the path forward lay instead in reconciliation. President Mandela and his Government of National Unity established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) with a mandate to investigate apartheid-era human rights abuses and facilitate rehabilitation for victims. The TRC could also offer amnesty from prosecution to perpetrators who fully disclosed their crimes.
The purpose of the TRC was not to diminish the responsibility of wrong doers for the acts they had committed or to eliminate blame. In Mandela’s own words,
“…when the TRC in its wisdom apportions blame, it points at previous state structures; political organizations; at institutions and individuals, but never at any community…
All of us are therefore now more free to be who we really are; no longer forced to experience some of those things which are most precious to us—language, culture or religion—as walls within which we are imprisoned.
Above all, we should remember that it was when South Africans of all backgrounds came together for the good of all that we confounded the prophets of doom by bringing an end to this terrible period of our history.”
He was an extraordinary man for extraordinary times.
Copyright Dominic J. Packer, 2013. All rights reserved.