Shelley Cowan logo

Connecting the dots.

Essays about how we communicate and why it matters.

Nelson Mandela: forgiveness, strategy and virtue

Posted on Friday, December 20, 2013 by Shelley Cowan

I’ve always thought of forgiveness as a virtue, something that good, moral and kind people do better than the rest of us. Nelson Mandela showed me a different perspective.

Before the extensive coverage that followed his death, I knew he forgave his enemies and led others to do the same. But I didn't know why.

What most captured my imagination these past weeks is that, for Mandela, forgiveness (along with non-violence) was a strategy.

Many of those featured in the stories that aired in the days between his death and burial explained his thinking. Here is what Bono said: In the end, Nelson Mandela showed us how to love rather than hate, not because he had never surrendered to rage or violence, but because he learnt that love would do a better job.

Here is Mandela’s explanation: Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies. And this: … non-violence was not a moral principle but a strategy; there is no moral goodness in using an ineffective weapon.

Strategic? Absolutely. But virtuous too. It is impossible not see him as good, moral and kind. 

Trying to reconcile this seeming contradiction, I stumbled upon the words of the Roman philosopher Seneca. He said: perfect prudence is indistinguishable from perfect virtue. Like Seneca, Mandela knew that virtue and strategy are not, if fact, on opposite ends of a philosophical spectrum after all. 

While virtue may always be an abstraction, strategy is easy to grasp. Whatever the source, Madiba managed to rid himself of resentment, bitterness and hatred. A freedom we can all strive for.