Our name is the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center. The name seems to imply that peace and justice work in tandem and are mutually reinforcing processes. This is often true because peace without justice is usually unstable, and justice without peace has egregious violations. The arrival of peace, however, does not always bring social justice.

The life of Nelson Mandela exemplifies this harsh disjuncture. Dismantling apartheid and instituting a multi-party political democracy in South Africa while avoiding a murderous civil war was an astonishing achievement for which Mandela deserves enormous credit. However, the African National Congress (ANC), of which Mandela was a principal leader, intended not only to establish political democracy but also to implement economic justice for the people of South Africa. This second — and equally important — intention has been bitterly frustrated in the post-apartheid era.

South Africa, with about 53 million people, is today one of the most unequal and violent societies on earth. Well over half the population lives in dire poverty, and the average income of whites is about six times that of blacks. More than 30 percent of the population is unemployed, and the rape rate is apparently the highest in the world. No significant land reform or property redistribution occurred under Mandela's leadership, and the economic ruling class of South Africa is today pretty much identical to that under apartheid, having incorporated a small black elite. Young black South Africans seem more angry and despairing today than during the apartheid era, when many people were energized by the hope of social revolution.


Should Nelson Mandela be faulted for these heartbreaking outcomes? Had the ANC insisted on social revolution and economic justice, apartheid would not have ended without massive violence. Indeed, South African apartheid might still be with us. Faced with the agonizing choice between a highly uncertain revolutionary transformation on the one hand and a non-violent transition to political democracy with extreme economic inequality on the other, Mandela chose the latter. Can anyone honestly say he was wrong to do so?

Mandela's peace or justice dilemma is not unique to South Africa. Analogous situations exist elsewhere. In Israel-Palestine, the only currently attainable peace agreement appears to be one denying Palestinians their fully justified right of return. What does wisdom council if cruel circumstances place peace and justice at loggerheads? The Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center does not have a universally valid answer.

The Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center's "Peace Train" column runs every Friday in the Colorado Daily.