The legacy of Mandela
By Addisu Lashitew
On the 15th of December, 2013, Nelson Mandela’s body was laid to rest in his home village of Qunu. The massive, spontaneous outpouring of condolences and sympathy that his death triggered was a clear manifestation of the respect Nelson Mandela commanded around the world. The passing of a “giant,” as one magazine called it, such as Mandela’s leaves in its wake the daunting task of evaluating his legacies.
In this article, I briefly reflect on Mandela’s legacy. For all the respect he commands, Mandela also has his detractors who question the soundness of his legacy on two grounds. First, they question if Mandela greatness has not been expounded beyond proportions by the lopsided reportage of the media. Second, they ask if Mandela had done enough to protect the interests of blacks in view of the huge economic inequalities seen in today’s South Africa. Before facing these questions headlong, let’s step back, and begin by looking into the character of the man in question – Nelson Mandela.
The most important feature of Mandela’s character was perhaps his being a free spirit. In his autobiography, The Long Journey to Freedom, he writes:
“I was not born with a hunger to be free. I was born free – free in every way that I could know. Free to run in the fields near my mother’s hut, free to swim in the clear stream that ran through my village, free to roast mealies under the stars and ride the broad backs of slow-moving bulls. As long as I obeyed my father and abided by the customs of my tribe, I was not troubled by the laws of man or God.”
When it downed on him that his freedom was curtailed by the apartheid regime, he stood fearlessly to fight it. He neglected his career and his family, endangered his life, and spent much of his youth and adulthood fighting the seemingly insurmountable force of apartheid.
As much as he was free and fearless, Mandela’s also possessed considerable level-headedness. This character can be seen in his pragmatic approach to politics, in his humane response to the grievances of apartheid, and the level of self-assuredness he exhibited in all of those arduous years. No doubt his personality evolved over time, and perhaps he owes his sagacity much to the 27-year long incarceration he went through. In his autobiography, he describes how he decided to maintain an unblemished spirit in the face of venomous adversity:
“I realized that they could take everything from me except my mind and my heart. They could not take those things. Those things I still had
control over. And I decided not to give them away.”
Thus Mandela managed to avoid becoming the monster he was fighting against, a trap all too many freedom fighters fall into.
When he spoke against apartheid, for example in the courtroom of his trial, he spoke in a firm but measured tone. His arguments were never polarized – never to the extent that would be expected from a person so unjustly accused, and was faced with a potential death penalty. He was charismatic, but never descended to the folly of impressionistic or populist arguments. His logic was consistent, and, perhaps by design, easily accessible to his opponents. As a politician this made him a trustworthy negotiator who could do business with integrity. His ability to exude trust and integrity was indispensable in assuaging the fears of the governing National Party which enabled it to arrive at a negotiated solution with the African National Congress (ANC).
All said, Mandela was a truly great persona that understood and fully believed in his greatness, and was not afraid to show it to the world. He was the right man at the right time. He was the grand spirit that applied itself to a great purpose, with grit and consistency, until it was eventually met. Thus he saw through the liberation of his people from an atrocious minority regime, and became the first black president of his country. By no means does this mean that he was perfect, and to that we will come in a short while.
The Unsung Heroes
Although Mandela is (perhaps rightly) presented as the face of the freedom struggle that brought down apartheid, there are two other factors that played at least equally important roles. The first is the leadership of the African Congress Party, which was able to mobilize the masses and keep the spirit of the struggle undimmed in a remarkably harsh environment. The second factor, contradictory as it may seem, is the openness of the system of governance of the apartheid regime. The predictable and law-based nature of the South Africa’s administration was a crucial factor that contributed to a successful negotiated solution towards democracy. In the years leading up to the 1994 election, there were several violent incidents involving the semi-autonomous tribal states and extremist Afrikaner nationalist forces, both of which wanted to either maintain the status quo or secede from the union and establish a separate country. The active and constructive involvement of the Afrikaner National Party avoided the risk of a violent civil war that could have dealt a catastrophic blow to the process of change.
It is in recognition of this contribution that the Nobel Peace Prize of 1993 was given not only to Mandela but also to de Klerk who, although no other than an apartheid president, had the cunning to see the “hand-writing on the wall” and acted in favor of change before it was too late.
Mandela the Saint?
Mandela, however, is no Gandhi or Martin Luther King since he spearheaded sabotage and military action against apartheid. Although the ANC initially adopted non-violent struggle, it was forced to change its methods following the brutal retaliation of the government that culminated in the Sharpeville massacre of 1960. A year later, Mandela co-founded and became the head of the underground military wing of the ANC.
In a recorded speech, Mandela made the case for military action against the apartheid regime:
“There are thousands of people who feel that it is useless and futile for us to continue talking peace and non-violence — against a government whose only reply is savage attacks on an unarmed and defenseless people. And I think the time has come for us to consider, in the light of our experiences at this day at home, whether the methods which we have applied so far are adequate.”
Mandela argued that “The oppressor defines the nature of the struggle.” It is largely for his involvement in bombings by this armed wing of the ANC, which led to several deaths, that he was arrested in 1962 and sentenced to life in prison.
When, in 1985, the then president P.W. Botha offered to release him if he rejected violence, Mandela spurned the offer, stating that “Only free men can negotiate. A prisoner cannot enter into contracts.” Still, Mandela remained a champion of a negotiated solution during the long decades of his incarceration. The final agreement that led up to a general election was essentially engineered by Mandela in spite of initial opposition from his own party.
This brings us to question of the extent to which Mandela’s crown of ‘halo’ is a fabricated matter. If Mandela was not the only actor in the fight against apartheid, and if he were not really the forgiving saint that some portray him to be, then where does his current saintly picture come from? Although the issue is unavoidably subjective, I would like to point out a couple of biases and inconsistencies related to media coverage that contributed to this misrepresentation.
First of all, the media tends to settle for presenting a rather stripped down, even superficial version of reality that is targeted for the average audience. It is due to this common denominator effect that much of the news coverage regarding Mandela fails to fully present the complexity of the freedom struggle in South Africa. The case for such shallow reporting is especially stronger when the setting is a faraway country such as South Africa, so that nobody cares about the smaller details.
Secondly, there is the media’s tendency to repeat and magnify the sensual aspect of a story. Heaping praise and glory on famous individuals is both cheaper and more sensual than discovering new heroes, or going to the bottom of the story with all of its complexities. The extraordinary life of Mandela makes him a natural target for a cult personality. He is often presented as a statesman, a forgiving figurehead and a unifying force of South Africa, while in fact in his earlier years he was a rather militant freedom fighter. This narrative is also likely to gain currency since it makes Mandela palatable to the tastes of the international audience who would otherwise find it hard to identify with a freedom fighter of a faraway country. What transpired from his funeral, however, is that Mandela is essentially seen as a freedom fighter. He is loved and respected among his own people largely for defying the brutal, minority regime of apartheid, and for sacrificing his life for fighting against it.
Mandela is more fittingly described as a practical and humane politician with an indomitable spirit to win rather than as a saintly figure. Regardless of what the media says, Mandela remains a great hero of his country and the world at large. Perhaps the most important proof for this is the extent to which he was dearly missed upon his death by his own people who knew him closely for decades.
Liberty without Prosperity
Political and economic freedom go hand in hand. It is fair to expect that South Africans fought against apartheid not merely to be able to elect their own leaders, but also to have full access to economic opportunities. Under Mandela’s presidency, the government significantly expanded its welfare scheme by launching several safety net programs that protected the economically underprivileged, and introduced affirmative action to encourage the participation of blacks in the labor market. It also introduced a land reform to rebalance the extremely skewed distribution of land. Although the economy benefited from these policies and rebounded rapidly, the majority of blacks in South Africa still remain impoverished.
Critics point out that the government could have taken more radical measures such as nationalizing the mines and other sectors of the economy. Given the fall of the Berlin Wall and the strong negotiation position of the National Party, these radical moves were ruled out from the beginning. In any case, it is difficult to argue that a mere redistribution of wealth could have redressed the intractable economic challenges of South Africa. In fact, the ANC should be praised for refraining from economic populism since poverty could be reduced only by means of long term growth.
The greatest strength of South Africa is not its wealth of gold and diamonds, nor its relatively high level of income. What sets apart South Africa from other African countries is that it was fortunate enough to inherit a set of political and economic institutions that were designed to work for the settlers. The achievements of these institutions are already there to see in the country’s relatively high quality of life, and in the successful power transfer from the minority regime to an elected government in 1994. This makes South Africa part of a select group of young countries such as USA, Canada, Australia, Singapore and New Zealand that are unique for successfully transplanting the market friendly and democratic institutions of Old Europe (Or to be more specific, those of Britain). Because their inclusive nature, these institutions have the potential to unleash economic prosperity by encouraging wealth creation via education and entrepreneurship. The future of South Africa depends to a great extent on its ability to maintain and upgrade these institutions so that they serve all citizens.
Of course it will take many years before the broader public of South Africa could be lifted up from poverty. The economic integration of the once-excluded blacks in the US, for example, is far from complete five decades after the end of segregation, highlighting the sluggishness of similar undertakings. It is perhaps fitting to conclude by citing yet another remarkable statement of Mandela about the need of patience:
“The truth is that we are not yet free; we have merely achieved the freedom to be free, the right not to be oppressed. We have not taken the final step of our journey, but the first step on a longer and even more difficult road. For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others. The true test of our devotion to freedom is just beginning.”