Nelson Mandela, whose death at 95 was announced yesterday by South African President Jacob Zuma, became an international figure during the 1960s when he was sentenced to life in prison for his political anti-Apartheid activism. It is remarkable to me that there is a generation of young people who weren’t alive when Mandela spent all those years in captivity. One must remember that as a consequence of his imprisonment, the Apartheid regime banned publication of his image. Indeed, the only image most people had of Mandela was this 1961 interview aired on British TV the year before he was captured.
Mandela’s imprisonment seemed an immutable fact of life as the Berlin Wall. The fact that Mandela was freed within months of the Wall being torn down demonstrates the impossible is possible. The end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s were a heady time. It must be said that F.W. de Klerk was to South Africa what Mikhail Gorbachev was to the Soviet Union. Mandela and de Klerk richly deserved their joint Nobel Peace Prize 20 years ago.
It must also be said that conservatives were slow to warm to Mandela and not entirely without justification. He was sympathetic to communism (the ANC and the South African Communist Party often acted in concert with each other) and did advocate violence, although not against civilians. On a personal note, I was troubled by Mandela’s sympathetic remarks towards Yasser Arafat and the PLO shortly after his release. There remained the question as to what Mandela would do should if he were to rule a black majority South Africa?
So let’s contrast the legacies of Africa’s two most notable liberators — Mandela and Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe. While Mugabe has clung to power for 33 years and counting, Mandela relinquished power after a single term in office. While Mugabe has made life a living hell for Zimbabwe’s white population and continually blames the West for its troubles, Mandela embarked upon truth and reconciliation with those who spent decades oppressing South Africa’s black population and urged the black majority to determine its own destiny. While Mugabe comes across as a demagogue, Mandela came across with dignity.
South Africa still endures with significant social problems, namely AIDS and a high crime rate. But Apartheid was an evil, untenable system and had to be brought to an end. Nelson Mandela succeeded in doing so and left South Africa a better place than he found it.