Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, the Nobel Prize-winning former political prisoner who became the first president of post-apartheid South Africa and that republic’s first black president, passed away today at the age of 95.
The young Mandela, an African nationalist and leftist, became active in politics in the mid-1940s, opposing the Nationalist Party of white Afrikaners (South Africans primarily of Dutch descent) and their imposition of racial segregationist policies known as apartheid.
Under apartheid, South Africans were classified into racial groups which, according to the Nelson Mandela Foundation website, “determined where someone could be born, where they could live, where they could go to school, where they could work, where they could be treated if they were sick and where they could be buried when they died. Only white people could vote and they had the best opportunities and the most money spent on their facilities.”
Over the next decade and a half, while in various elected positions within the African National Congress, the key black anti-apartheid movement and eventually the nation’s dominant political party, Mandela opposed the segregationist regime, going through multiple arrests and four trials. Mandela is also thought to have been a member of the Communist Party for some time, beginning in the early 1960s, though Mandela denied membership at his 1964 trial.
In 1962, Mandela was sentenced to five years of hard labor; he was sent to Robben Island in May 1963. However, in June 1964, following what is known as the Rivonia Trial, Mandela and eight others were sentenced to life in prison for sabotage. Mandela remained in prison until February 11, 1990.
In 1994, working with then-President F.W. de Klerk, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize with Mandela, South Africa had its first elections in which all races could vote, and Mandela was elected president.
With de Klerk, Mandela oversaw the writing of a new constitution and worked tirelessly to overcome the nation’s deep-seated divisions – hatreds would not be too strong a term – through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Mandela was self-term-limited, and did not run for re-election after his presidential term ended in 1999.
But the usual dates and titles don’t do justice to one of the truly great figures of modern history and his nearly miraculous successes in unifying what was perhaps the world’s most divided nation at the time.
To give some context, I’d like to share a story: In 1989, during apartheid, I went to South Africa to visit a friend who was serving in the Peace Corps in Lesotho (a small mountainous country located wholly within the borders of South Africa).
My friend and I went to a small town called Alldays in the northern area of the former Transvaal province (now Limpopo) to do some hunting. In the evening, we went to the local bar to have a cold beer and meet some locals. Our hunting guide, a most interesting local named Dirk Uys (pronounced something like “ice”), came along with us.
We sat down with a few locals, white men in their 60s, who were interested in talking politics with the Americans. We learned that they were affiliated with a political party called the AWB. I asked Dirk if they were Nazis and Dirk said, in a moment I will never forget, “No, they’re much more conservative than the Nazis.”
These men spent much of the next hour talking about their military experience, specifically how proud they were to have fought in Angola. By fighting, they meant, and said explicitly, “killing kaffirs,” a highly defamatory term which is the South African equivalent of what we commonly call “the n-word” in the United States today.
They asked us what guns we had brought to hunt with. We said we had borrowed rifles from Dirk. They were disappointed and asked us to bring guns from America next time, saying they thought they would really need good guns in the not too distant future.
As these men were slightly drunk and not shy even when sober, I asked a very direct question: “Do you mean you want guns to kill black people when the revolution comes?” The answer was equally direct, and shocking: “Of course.”
As with all nationalist racist lunatics, the men went on to opine, and I quote, “blacks are bad but our real problems are all caused by the Jews.” Needless to say, I declined when they asked me if I wanted to hunt with them the next day. I presume these men had never met a Jew and other than that frightening hour at the bar, I didn’t want to be their first.
These people, while somewhat a fringe minority, nevertheless represented a real part of the nation that the new black president had to pacify when he took office.
And then there was the majority:
South Africa is well-described as a Second World country, with an incredible range of urban and industrial wealth, with factories and communities not just “gated” but surrounded by fences covered with razor wire and patrolled by armed guards with Rottweilers, often within shouting distance of large ghettos, called townships, such as Soweto (actually a collection of townships in the greater Johannesburg area), which is home to approximately 1.3 million poor blacks.
South Africa has some of the most beautiful wine country you’ll ever see (about an hour from Capetown) and hundreds of dusty hovel-filled villages where blacks eke out an existence farming and weaving baskets which tourists buy from shops in larger towns and cities.
Matching its extremes of topography, from beach to mountains to jungle to desert, South Africa also has social and economic extremes you will rarely find elsewhere. It would not be hard to imagine it as a powder keg; indeed it would be hard to avoid it.
Imagine the man needed to keep that large, recently and brutally oppressed, uneducated, socialist black majority representing about 80 percent of the population (the country’s total population was about 40 million at the time apartheid ended, and is about 52 million today) from exacting bloody revenge on the country’s white minority, under 10 percent of the population, many of whom they did not even share a language with. The fact that the black population is made up of various different tribes and clans was surely a double-edged sword in Mandela’s pleading for peace and tolerance.
While a comparison of post-apartheid South Africa to the Reconstruction period following the American Civil War initially seems apt, the fact that blacks represent the vast majority of South Africa’s population is an important differentiator.
Neither George “I’m a Uniter” Bush nor Barack “Post-Partisan” Obama can even get relatively similar Democrats and Republicans to get along, but Nelson Mandela, largely through sheer force of personality, prevented what could have been bloody vengeful separatist insurrection among people with deep and serious grievances.
With all this in mind, it is impossible to visit South Africa (as I have three more times since the end of apartheid) and the notorious Robben Island prison, South Africa’s own Alcatraz, without gaining a sense of the true greatness of Madiba, as Mr. Mandela was known within his Xhosa clan.
The country still has substantial problems and yawning racial economic divides: 28% unemployment among blacks, under 7% for whites; a massive black underclass with little opportunity to make better lives for their children; and an estimated 13 percent of blacks being HIV-positive (compared to under 1 percent of whites.)
Yet while crime rates in some cities are high, in day to day life people of all races treat each other (at least superficially) with friendship and courtesy. In my experience, South Africans, regardless of race, are the friendliest people on Earth.
One more short story: About a decade after the end of apartheid, I was in a taxi in Capetown, speaking with the cab driver about South African politics. He said that things were OK, basically stable, but not great. I asked what would make his life better. He said he had an idea to start a business but couldn’t get a loan of even a few hundred dollars to start, and then said “I think it would be better if there were more white people in government; they understand economics better.” My gut reaction was that this black cab driver showed why there was real hope for his country. He was interested in results, not revenge.
The fact that South Africa did not have years of blood running through the streets, or the theft and thuggery and impoverishing anti-white policies of Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, the fact that they have a functioning democracy, the fact that the nation has a real, if not easy, path toward a successful future, is largely due to Nelson Mandela, a man who withstood more than a quarter century of hard labor, sleeping on a straw mat in a prison cell barely a foot wider than he was tall.
The question for the Republic of South Africa now is whether its people have the will, and its politicians the skill, to live up to the dream and the potential which Nelson Mandela saw, created, and embodied.
No man is perfect, and Nelson Mandela was undoubtedly not a saint. But when history needed a man of the strongest character to defeat, without bloodshed, an aggressive, evil political system which had survived years of international opposition and outrage, Madiba achieved what few others could even have conceived.
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