My grandfather, Nelson Mandela, used moral leadership to end apartheid. Can it end the war in Ukraine?

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy recently made headlines when he declared that the war between Russia and Ukraine must end in negotiations and diplomacy. My grandfather – Nelson Mandela – would have agreed. After all, he knew that dialogue and moral leadership are essential to secure lasting peace. You see, the fight against apartheid was fought on many fronts. But the most important thing was the moral.

Before Mandela, white South Africans generally did not view apartheid as evil. But under my grandfather’s leadership and strong moral leadership, their views changed drastically and the struggle against apartheid became a unifying national struggle. The key to this success? Unwavering moral leadership.

Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu and other leaders of the movement won the battle for hearts and minds – uniting a deeply broken state. It is this rare form of political leadership – one based on morality – that the rest of the world can – and must – learn from. And for Russia and Ukraine, it could make all the difference in what is increasingly looking like a protracted conflict.

Zelensky was widely held up by the West as a paragon of moral leadership – he was even heralded as a potential Nobel Peace Prize winner. But for such moral authority to have any real demonstrable impact, it must resonate not only with the West, but also with the voters who oppose it in this conflict – the Russian public. And that can only be done by articulating a narrative that focuses on a common, common humanity – just as the anti-apartheid leaders did.

Such feelings may seem counterintuitive at first. After all, it was Russia that invaded Ukraine – that had to defend its nation. But the longer this conflict lasts, the greater the influence of public opinion in both camps will be – either to pressure their leaders to seek peace or – conversely – to solidify their resolve to keep fighting.

Of course, changing public opinion would require moral coalitions: coalitions of civil society organizations, religious leaders, literary voices — figures that people on both sides resonate with, relate to, and look up to.

In South Africa, it was a coalition of peacemakers and moral leaders who breathed life into the anti-apartheid message. It became so powerful that ordinary white South Africans could not help but first acknowledge it, then respect it, and finally embrace it. However, building such coalitions in times of deep division, tribalism and hostility is not easy.

Local residents examine a destroyed Russian tank
Local residents examine a destroyed Russian tank outside Kyiv on May 31, 2022.

This is where the role of the international community comes into play. Moral coalitions in times of conflict are not always developed from within. They must also be encouraged from outside.

The role of global civil society was prominent during apartheid. Religious leaders outside of South Africa engaged, encouraged and supported their counterparts in the country – both black and white – to take the right steps. As well as politics, civil society and countless other prominent personalities and organizations.

Similarly, global civil society needs to engage its peers in conflict zones like Russia and Ukraine to encourage peacebuilding narratives to gain momentum. When the Pope said he wished to meet President Vladimir Putin to help end the war, it was a small step in the right direction.

In fact, the religious leadership in Ukraine and Russia is an interesting example of this. Orthodox Christian institutions in both countries have been heavily politicized during the conflict. That’s because they have tremendous moral authority and respect from ordinary Russians and Ukrainians.

Recently, both the head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and a high-ranking representative of the Russian Orthodox Patriarch sat at a table. At Saudi Arabia’s first interfaith meeting, organized by Muhammad bin Abdul Karim Issa, general secretary of the Muslim World League, she and 100 other religious leaders, including Vatican officials, evangelicals, rabbis, and Hindu and Buddhist priests, agreed to work together peace building and exploring common ground. This is exactly what global forums and partnerships can achieve – bringing powerful voices from civil society together to find common ground.

After all, this is how track 2 diplomacy works; by seeking enough common values ​​and common ground between non-state voices of influence on either side of a conflict to develop a shared vision for peace – a vision that can be presented to the political leadership of either side.

Moral leadership from figures like Zelensky is critical to making these kinds of openings possible. However, there is also a risk that the important role of moral authority associated with Zelenskyy will be damaged if we are not careful. Let us not forget that reports of the treatment of some minorities in Ukraine at the start of the conflict revealed worrying racial prejudice.

Thousands of people of color have been deprioritized and trapped in Ukraine. And although the Ukrainian government has addressed the horrible treatment of minorities at the border, the war has shown that unfortunately, black refugees are treated differently than those of Caucasian descent.

Moral authority is not selective. And such double standards risk undermining the building of global moral coalitions so crucial to peace in Ukraine before they even begin.

Mandela, for example, recognized that a prosperous and democratic South Africa was in everyone’s interest. And for the Ukrainian-Russian war to be resolved, Zelensky must recognize that moral leadership in times of conflict is not about just one goal or person, but about all of humanity.

Ndileka Mandela is Author, social activist and director of one of South Africa’s best-known rural development organisations, Thembekile Mandela Foundation, which works on education, health, youth and women’s development in rural villages. She is one of South Africa’s best-known feminists and the eldest granddaughter of Nelson Mandela. She serves on the boards of several NGOs and philanthropic organizations and is an outspoken supporter of the #MeToo movement, which uses her platform to combat the stigma surrounding sexual violence.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own. My grandfather, Nelson Mandela, used moral leadership to end apartheid. Can it end the war in Ukraine?

Rick Schindler

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