Nelson Mandela Foundation

A week ago, the Nelson Mandela Foundation hosted the United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres in delivering the 18th Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture. The idea was for him to focus on global inequality and the nature of the ‘social contract’ that governs not only our lives but the global order. Guterres pulled no punches during his address, asserting strongly, for instance:

“The nations that came out on top seventy years ago have refused to contemplate the reforms needed to change power relations in international institutions. The composition and voting rights in the United Nations Security Council and the boards of the Bretton Woods institutions are a case in point. 

Inequality starts at the top: in global institutions. Addressing inequality must start by reforming them.” 

As we consider what reforming such institutions might look like, or even contemplate the possibility of dismantling ‘the system’, we should pause and reflect on the people (and their motivations) who built these institutions.

Whilst all history has longer antecedents, a starting point could be just over just over a century ago, when the world’s most powerful politicians gathered in Paris to formulate the Covenant of the League of Nations as part of the Treaty of Versailles, which brought an end to a war in which over twenty million people lost their lives. The war, often reduced to a European conflict, had a global impact, with the African continent a centre of carnage and violence, driven, in part, by the spoils of colonial conquest.

One of leading figures at the time was South African General, Jan Smuts. Over a short space of time he had moved from being a fierce opponent of the British Empire and a Boer general to a leading proponent of the Commonwealth. He spoke and wrote extensively on ideals such as liberty and equality and believed firmly in the idea that nations could work collaboratively to bring about peace and prosperity. Yet Smuts’s views on an international stage contrasted disturbingly with his politics at home, where he promoted the entrenchment of segregation between ‘races’.

Leading the global process from the United States was Woodrow Wilson, a leading ‘progressive’ politician whose work led to him being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1919. Long seen as a representative of a new-world order and as an architect of the international system, Wilson’s legacy has also been questioned recently due to hiss deep seated racism and the discriminatory practices that he undertook. In fact, Princeton University has responded to  activists by removing his name from their School of Public and International Affairs.

The League of Nations, which emerged from processes driven by Wilson, Smuts and others, ultimately failed in its aim to prevent another world war. Nor was it able to respond effectively to the rise of fascism and racism from the 1920s onward. Hitler took the world by storm. The casualties this time were even greater than during the first world war, with death and destruction on an incomprehensible scale. After a generation of mayhem and on the back of the failure of the League of Nations, the United Nations Charter was signed in 1945. Once again Jan Smuts represented South Africa. Alongside Smuts were notable figures such as Winston Churchill, who led the British charge during the war. Like Smuts and Wilson, his once almost untouchable legacy based on being a bulwark against fascism, has been questioned, even in Britain, due to his racism and imperialism.

The institutions these men set up were, like them, flawed. However, as we move toward a new ‘social contract’ and begin reimagining new institutions we should also consider our own moral blindspots. As Nicholas Kristof recently asked:

"As we pull down controversial statues and reassess historical figures, I've been wondering what our great-grandchildren will find bewilderingly immoral about our own times." [1]

However, as we begin considering this dialogue to reimagine both institutions and social contracts we should consider the words of Professor Njabulo Ndebele, who in 1984  noted:

However, as we begin considering this dialogue to reimagine both institutions and social contracts we should consider the words of Professor Njabulo Ndebele, who in 1984 noted:

“…we have a society of posturing and sloganeering; one that frowns upon subtlety of thought and feeling, and never permits the sobering power of contemplation, of close analysis, and the mature acceptance of failure, weakness, and limitations. It is totally heroic. Even the progressive side has been domesticated by the hegemony of spectacle.”

In the thirty odd years since his address, Ndebele’s words seem all the more considered especially in an age of algorithmic hysteria. Our moral orders, frameworks and institutions will be built by people who, like Smuts, Churchill and Wilson, will be flawed. And whilst one may hope that, unlike them, those who build this future will not deny the humanity of others, in eighty years from now, those that follow us will question our judgements and know that we too were imperfect, carried prejudices and made mistakes.

If we are to get this right, then the work of building will have to, simultaneously, draw deeply on the learnings of history and find a way to work beyond  our own purviews, biases and short-sightedness, something which will require an engagement with those that we vehemently disagree with. Such work might, for example, demand that the Nelson Mandela Foundation find a way to engage with the people who desecrated the statue of Madiba in the Netherlands on Mandela Day rather than dismiss them as white supremacists (which they are) and walk away. Such work is not easy work. But it is, precisely, the work Madiba did during South Africa’s transition to democracy.

It is interesting that in some quarters the Secretary-General’s vision, as articulated in the Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture, has been interpreted as a socialist dream. Also interesting is that world-renowned economist Thomas Piketty, who gave the 2015 Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture and who has just published the book Capital and Ideology, is advocating a new world order which will end what he calls ‘the global inequality regime’ and which will draw on what he calls ‘participatory socialism’.

It is time to revisit discarded histories, reckon with oppressive pasts, and transform a present which is profoundly destructive. What a task. And what a challenge. It is only through deeper, more inclusive, dialogue that we will find the frameworks that will be robust enough to transform us and ultimately lead us to real liberation.

1.  The New York TimesThe Mistakes That Will Haunt our Legacy