Nelson Mandela, 1918-2013

by Dave Schuler on December 7, 2013

I’ve been mulling over how I should react to Nelson Mandela’s death. I thought Max Boot’s comments were worth passing along:

I can remember growing up in the 1980s when there was widespread suspicion among conservatives in the U.S.–including many in the Reagan administration–that if the African National Congress were to take over, South Africa would be transformed into another dysfunctional dictatorship like the rest of the continent. That this did not come to pass was due to many reasons including F.W. de Klerk’s wisdom in giving up power without a fight.

But the largest part of the explanation for why South Africa is light years ahead of most African nations–why, for all its struggles with high unemployment, crime, corruption, and other woes, it is freer and more prosperous than most of its neighbors–is the character of Nelson Mandela. Had he turned out to be another Mugabe, there is every likelihood that South Africa would now be on the same road to ruin as Zimbabwe. But that did not happen because Mandela turned out to be, quite simply, a great man–someone who could spend 27 years in jail and emerge with no evident bitterness to make a deal with his jailers that allowed them to give up power peacefully and to avoid persecution.

Mandela knew that South Africa could not afford to nationalize the economy or to chase out the white and mixed-raced middle class. He knew that the price of revenge for the undoubted evils that apartheid had inflicted upon the majority of South Africans would be too high to pay–that the ultimate cost would be borne by ordinary black Africans. Therefore he governed inclusively and, most important of all, he voluntarily gave up power after one term when he could easily have proclaimed himself president for life.

Mandela was certainly a great leader and model for South Africa in particular and Africa more generally. Those who see his primary role as liberator are overlooking his greatest achievement which was as reconciler. That’s something we should all wish to emulate.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

jan December 7, 2013 at 9:56 am

Mandela’s ‘greatness’ was due, first and foremost, to his genuine humility, followed by core principles, wisdom in knowing what he could change and what he had to accept, putting the people’s interest before himself, and importantly emanating a dignity having nothing to do with self-importance. Also, his leadership was one aimed at bringing people together, healing rather than highlighting old wounds, and bridging rather than deepening racial divides. It’s quite a recipe — one that has certainly not been followed by the leaders in this country.

Ben Wolf December 8, 2013 at 5:35 am

South Africa is an economic and social basket-case, or was Max sleeping when the government took to gunning down miners in the streets on behalf of multinational corporations? Or inflicting mass death by denying AIDS, or the continued concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a few (a group which looks curiously identical to the blokes at the top during apartheid). Don’t worry Max, the armed rape and murder gangs roaming the country aren’t hurting anyone who actually matters. So what if life expectancy continues to fall and environmental conditions have rapidly eroded, while the vast majority remain locked in poverty thanks to a system of state-controlled crony capitalism, a system Mandela put into place. Who would be so crude as to suggest actual outcomes matter?

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