The fourteenth installment in the series of articles written by our friend, Solomon Rajaram Hariharan, a member of the “Dream team 2012” of “Sri Lanka Unites”( A youth movement for hope and reconciliation).
It is true that we learned valuable lessons from Nelson Mandela in a previous article as well, but there are many more lessons that we can learn from him; lessons that could make our homeland a better place to live in. We would also like to wish this great leader a speedy recovery…
“Know your enemy – and learn about his favourite sport”
The Afrikaners are white South Africans whose favourite sport was rugby. The blacks in South Africa preferred football. During Mandela’s time, the white South Africans treated the blacks as inferior to them. This made Mandela and several others voice against the apartheid policy. The blacks and whites in South Africa continued to fight with each other. The blacks would always support the team opposing their National Rugby team. The gap between the two groups got wider and wider. Mandela made attempts to narrow the gap. He started learning Afrikaans, the language of the white South Africans who created the apartheid. His comrades in the African National Congress (ANC) teased him about it, but Mandela wanted to understand the Afrikaner’s worldview; he knew that one day he would either be fighting with them or negotiating with them. Either way, his destiny was tied to theirs. This was strategic in two senses: by speaking his opponents’ language, he might understand their strengths and weaknesses and formulate tactics accordingly. But he would also be ingratiating with his enemy. Everyone from ordinary jailers to P.W. Botha was impressed by Mandela’s willingness to speak Afrikaans and his knowledge of Afrikaner history.
How many leaders in the country are trilingual? How many people around us speak both Tamil and Sinhala? It is a very small number that actually speaks the two languages commonly spoken in the country. Many leaders fail to see the importance of learning the other group’s language. They think that since they speak Sinhala, they can connect with the majority and that is enough to secure the majority votes. Only a few Sinhalese leaders attempt to learn Tamil, the language of the minority in Sri Lanka. The Tamil leaders on the other hand are compelled to learn Sinhala as they need to use that language when negotiating and speaking with the Sinhalese leaders. The language barrier is a reason for segregation in the country. The majority will start to think that since their language is the most widely spoken in the nation, they are superior to others. The minority on the other hand starts thinking that they are inferior to others. This creates room for issues and leads to violence.
To solve most of the problems in Sri Lanka, the leaders, irrespective of their background, should have a sound knowledge of Sinhala and Tamil. When this is achieved, the leaders would face fewer problems in connecting and speaking with the other group. They learn to see the way the other group had felt all this while. When this happens, the leaders would understand the challenges the opposing group faces and would try and work joining hands with the formerly opposing group. It is after Mandela learnt Afrikaners that he understood that blacks and Afrikaners had something fundamental in common: Afrikaners believed themselves to be Africans as deeply as blacks did. He knew too, that Afrikaners had been victims of prejudice themselves: the British government and the white English settlers looked down on them. Afrikaners suffered from a cultural inferiority complex almost as much as blacks did. If Mandela had not learnt Afrikaans, he would have never understood the common ground and South Africa would still be fighting amongst itself. We can see the importance of learning the other groups’ languages which serves to create opportunities for unity among segregated groups.
Mandela was a lawyer, and in prison he helped the warders with their legal problems. They were far less educated and worldly than he, and it was extraordinary to them that a black man was willing and able to help them. Allister Sparks, a great South African historian defines them as ‘the most ruthless and brutal of the apartheid regime’s characters. But Allister realized that even the worst and crudest could be negotiated with. This feat was possible only because Mandela took the initiative and effort to learn Afrikaans. As future leaders, what we can accomplish now, is taking the steps to learn both Sinhala and Tamil. Though it might be hard in the beginning, you never know the benefits the nation can receive later because it has leaders who can communicate with both the Sinhalese and the Tamils equally well, leading to equality among the citizens.