Reconciling old enemies is a complicated political manoeuvre: a moment of high drama in which small missteps can be catastrophic. Two very different leaders in two very different eras of South African history were called on to embark on this treacherous path.
Despite the differences, a close reading of the political efforts of Louis Botha and Nelson Mandela demonstrates surprising similarities. Even more illuminating, Botha was involved in a fascinating argument with his old friend Jan Smuts in Paris in 1919 prior to the Versailles peace accord: the topic, reconciliation. Is there a secret to reconciliation? If so, do these episodes reveal anything about that secret?
The post-Apartheid era shows fascinating echoes of the era after the Boer War: Afrikaners learning that they can win by “losing”, the trade-off between vengeance and forbearance, and a worrying trajectory towards nationalism. Efforts to reconcile “the nation” – both after the Boer War and after Apartheid – are treacherous and demand trade-offs.
Tim Cohen looks at how Louis Botha and Nelson Mandela managed the transitions they were overseeing – and how both suffered the backlash. Is reconciliation even possible?