Things Every Person Should Know

There are a handful of topics in history that every person should know about.  Not because it pertains to any specific culture, not because it pertains to any specific worldview or mindset, but because they are stories of dramatic advancement of the condition of humankind and the engines that power governments.  History is the a field built around stories of humankind’s most dramatic successes and most dismal failures.

The world of today is plagued with something called “zero-sum politics”.  Essentially, the idea is that if you and your side does not win in every regard, then you have lost in some regard.  Political parties, politicians, and even nations refuse to compromise because of the swamp of political theory that exists in the hearts and minds of those in charge.  History has shown time and time again that oftentimes, change is not achieved by crushing your enemies, seeing them driven before you and hearing the lamentations of their women.

What can be seen instead is that frequently, some of the most monumentally successful changes in the world of social politics came from collaboration and common ground.

Apartheid South Africa and Nelson Mandela

Apartheid (Afrikaans for “apart-hood” or state of being apart) was South Africa’s name for the intense and legally instituted system of racial segregation.  While the racial discriminations and segregation existed long before the institutionalization, it was not until the 1940s and 50s that the system took on a more austere and publically racist face.  By 1978, some 19 million Blacks in South Africa were allotted only 13% of the land, while 4.5 million whites were allowed use of the remaining 87%.  Schools for whites in South America were better, mortality rates were lower, incomes were higher, nearly all aspects of standard of living were better for the white South Africans than for their Black neighbors (kinda, white people never lived around Black people, they often separated the groups into two distinctly racially split zones).

Nelson Mandela became famous early in his life as a member of the African National Congress (ANC), becoming an attorney and forming a militaristic and violent splinter off the ANC in the 1960s that would land him in jail for the next 27 years.  During his time in prison, Mandela began to establish his political theory that reconciliation and human respect would be the tools to recreate and rebuild South Africa (several groups were clamoring for warfare, with slogans like “one bullet per settler”, white South Africa was gearing up for war throughout the 1980s).

Most descriptions of Mandela describe his nearly magical charisma and warmth, but what is remembered in most historical accounts of him is how he overcame the hatreds that people expected him to feel.  By finding and conversing with the best of each person, Mandela formed lasting friendships with his jailers, the opposition government leaders, militant Zulu factions, and far-right wing white militia groups.  South Africa’s transformation from an institutionally racist nation to one that was, at the very least, proud to be an ethnically heterogeneous nation was largely at the hands of Mandela’s focus on respecting the interests and the traditions of all parties that were involved in the process.  For several years, South Africa had two national anthems, one that was in Afrikaans (Dutch South African language), and one in Xhosa (a tribal South African language).  Compromise without devaluing the beliefs and the traditions of the political opposition was a core part of the South African success story.

Other notable examples of compromise being effective:

The American Constitution (Ratification of the document required a forced bicameral legislature, a compromise between the Virginia and New Jersey Plans)

Gandhi and the British Colonials in India

Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin

Pax Romana (Romans allowed all those conquered by them to join into the empire, paying taxes but being allowed to retain much of their cultures and their heritage)

You could even argue that Ottoman Imperial treatment of non-Muslims is included under that umbrella as well.  The Ottomans allowed all monotheists to live in more or less peace, at a time where being a part of a minority religion in a country warranted extreme persecution.


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