Hero with feet of clay?

May 06, 1994|By Larry Hufford

NELSON MANDELA and Lech Walesa have much in common. For starters both won the Nobel Peace Prize for achieving the stature of a hero of conscience. What is a hero of conscience? A hero is one who engages in deeds of courage. Conscience involves the development of a moral judgment that opposes the violation of a previously recognized ethical principle.

Both Mr. Mandela and Mr. Walesa spoke out against inhumane oppression and systems which dehumanize the individual person by denying citizens basic civil rights, civil liberties and economic opportunity. Not only did they speak out, they were the key figure in organizing opposition movements -- illegal ones.

Mr. Walesa was the leader of Poland's Solidarity movement and Mr. Mandela the leading figure in the banned African National Congress. Both were detained and arrested for these activities. In Mr. Mandela's case, he spent much of his adult life in prison.

As a result of Mr. Walesa's and Mr. Mandela's willingness to take risks involving imprisonment and loss of life for the goal of a more humane, just society, both men achieved a larger than life status. Heroes of conscience take on a mythical nature.

They represent the few who have the courage to defend just principles by rising above feelings based on hatreds that lead to advocating violent revolution.

Mr. Walesa and Mr. Mandela lived to see the walls of oppression crumble and fall -- communism and apartheid. Mr. Walesa was instrumental in negotiating the constitutional framework for post-communist Poland. Mr. Mandela played a similar role for post-apartheid South Africa. As truly free, democratic elections became a reality, the world press focused on the hopes, dreams, and aspirations of long-oppressed peoples. The euphoria surrounding election day is, unfortunately, short-lived.

Poland is a homogeneous nation that is overwhelmingly Catholic. It is a poor country, but large parts of its population are not living in squatter or marginalized communities. In the "new" Poland, politics quickly became fragmented between those who advocated a fast-track, cold-turkey transition to a free-market economy and forces in favor of a slower transition with government providing a safety net for those left unemployed.

In this deeply divided political reality, Mr. Walesa chose to run for the presidency. In doing so he left his hero of conscience stature behind to become a political figure. A hero of conscience is a unifying force that transcends partisan politics. In times of national crisis such leaders are needed to keep the political debate focused, to be a voice for the voiceless, and to call for citizens to respect the process, and not to advocate violence or a return to an undemocratic form of government.

Lech Walesa entered the office of the presidency as a hero of conscience. He remains in office today, thoroughly discredited, his party in ruins, his economic programs rejected and former communists gaining both popular and electoral strength. Poland is in turmoil and there is no unifying voice, no moral figure respected by citizens regardless of their partisan political views.

As a former civil rights activist and longtime civil libertarian, I was deeply moved at the sight of Nelson Mandela, along with millions of historically disenfranchised South African citizens, voting for the first time in their lives. I admit, however, to a disappointment that Mandela became the presidential candidate of the African National Congress. I had hoped that upon his release from prison, he would maintain and broaden his hero of conscience stature as the major founding father of the new South Africa.

That is, he would become the unifying force for all South Africans, whites, blacks, mixed-blood "coloreds" and Asians alike. There is no doubt that Mr. Mandela will enter the presidency, as Mr. Walesa did, as a hero of conscience. The question is, will he suffer the same fate?

South Africa is a far more complex society than Poland. Poland has one official language, South Africa has 11. Poland is a homogeneous population, South Africa a complex multicultural, multi-racial society emerging from 300 years of domination. Political parties in South Africa include one advocating TC separate white state and one advocating a militant, anti-white political and economic agenda.

Expectations are very high. Citizens currently living in squatter and marginal areas are expecting immediate action in response to long-denied infrastructure, education, health care, housing and employment needs.

There will not be enough money to quickly resolve the Third World living conditions of millions of black South Africans, assuming the new government is capable of passing legislation addressing these conditions. Not everyone wants to see Mr. Mandela succeed. My fear is that once the euphoria of the elections has passed and the political struggle begins, the turmoil will remain and grow.

Mr. Mandela is likely to go the way of Mr. Walesa. At the critical moment, when citizens of South Africa will need a national hero of conscience to maintain a spiritual unity, there will be no one to play this role. The former hero of conscience, Nelson Mandela, will have become swamped in partisan politics -- viewed as part of the problem rather than a part of the solution. Mr. Mandela could easily become the Lech Walesa of South Africa.

Larry Hufford is a professor of political science at St. Mary's University in San Antonio, Texas.

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