Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Mandela: A Retrospective

Since his death, Nelson Mandela has been the subject of a slough of memoriams, odes, and general remembrances--as it should be. But as he himself acknowledged, we ought to acknowledge his accomplishments without deifying him. Which apparently is kind of hard.

Being just about the youngest person on this blog, Mandela has perhaps evoked different feelings for my generation than for older ones, perhaps. We look at him basically the same way we look at Gandhi--both were kind, saintly guys who stood up to the oppressive, racist and all-around mean government, got put in prison for it, and then late in life were vindicated and became international symbols of peace and equality. Seriously, if you asked most teens and 20-somethings to name three people who are for sure in heaven (besides Grandma), most would name Mandela, Gandhi, and probably Mother Teresa.

Despite (or because of) this, most of those same people also have little grasp of who Mandela was, or what he did to become famous. Heck, until recently I didn't know why he was in prison in the first place. So, for the sake of understanding him fully, a balanced and completely accurate analysis is in order. But instead you get my hackery.

First things first: No one can take away from the fact that after he got out of prison, Mandela was an inspirational figure, and did far better as a political leader than he might have. Especially compared with some nearby thugs like Zimbabwe's Mugabe, Mandela had a fairly good record--he didn't starve the country in some bizarre redistribution scheme, and he didn't inaugurate official racial retaliation or anything like that. And just as importantly, he relinquished power legally and peacefully, which again is more than can be said for a lot of post-colonial rulers. So yeah, post-apartheid South Africa was definitely not the worst place to live, and Mandela deserves a good deal of the credit for that.

At the same time, it would be wrong to deny that during the past twenty years or so, the country has seen a real decline in some quarters. One of the most obvious has been the AIDS epidemic, which, clearly, neither he nor anyone else was responsible for; but he has since been criticized for denying it was a problem even when it clearly was. Given that, by some estimates, a third of South Africa had the disease by the turn of the century, this seems rather odd. More glaringly, he pushed for what he called a "deracialization" of the economy, which in practice meant aggressive affirmative action and a transfer of wealth that did improve the position of many blacks, but at the expense of impoverishing many whites.

Another thing--a lot of people seem to be under the impression (again, this included me) that Mandela was just like Gandhi or MLK in his consistent advocacy of nonviolence. Granted, it's hard to find specific evidence of that advocacy, but he's famous for being peaceful and was played by Morgan Freeman, so he must have at some point.

Well...not so much. Ever heard of "necklacing"? I hadn't. It refers to some ANC terrorists' practice of hanging a tire around white captives' necks and setting it on fire. That's the sort of thing for which ANC leaders such as Mandela (who did not carry out such acts himself but founded the party faction that did) got put in prison for in the first place. Granted, Mandela rejected anything resembling a "race war" when he became president--for which we should all be grateful--but many radicals continued to carry out barbaric murders against whites, many of whom, it should be said, retaliated in kind. This violence, combined with AIDS and the economic disruption, has caused a mass exodus of white South Africans--perhaps a million since the early '90s. Not that they've been the only victims, by a long shot. Black-on-black crime has been even more endemic, including some of the world's highest rates of rape and murder.

How much of this post-apartheid atmosphere was by design? Well, I guess that depends on whether you think Mandela was, as many on the far Right (and some not on the far Right) have been arguing since his death, an out-and-out Communist out for racial vengeance. "Madiba"s record with the officially Marxist African National Congress has been...well, complicated. He was definitely not a Communist ideologue when he joined the ANC back in the late '40s, but became one for a while thereafter. He seems not to have been by the time he left prison, but for an extended period of time, he was happy to make common cause with all sorts of international left-wing goons. As much of a scandal as Obama shaking hands with Raul Castro at the memorial service was, the fact is the latter wouldn't have been there at all if Mandela hadn't been very friendly with the Castros, regarding them as comrades in the fight for racial liberation and such.


What's the ultimate takeaway here? I suppose most people would say Mandela was the "father of his country," in a way, just as Washington was over here, so let's compare. (That's probably not very fair, but shut up.) Lots of similarities could be drawn--wanting to appear above the partisan fray, for example--but the chief difference, I think, is that Washington, like all the Founding Fathers, was a great believer in the rule of law and keenly aware of the dangers of extra-legal, retaliatory violence, especially when committed in the name of an abstract cause. Mandela appears to have learned this lesson late, and only partially.

That's not to say he bears the blame for all South Africa's ills; far from it. You can't lay those problems on one person, and again, he did far better than those aware of his early career might have feared. But movements which use violent means, even in pursuit of good ends (and not all the ANC's goals were good), tend to be corrupted by them over time; and if those movements gain power, the country will tend to reflect that corruption. So, broadly speaking, I think it's clear that South Africa today reveals the good and the bad of Nelson Mandela's impact. And hopefully it reveals some lessons in what to do and not do if you're the leader of such a movement.


AndrewPrice said...

T-Rav, It is precisely because these things were in his past 30 years before when he took over, that his positives are so amazing to people.

T-Rav said...

Andrew, that's true, but I'm not just talking about what he may have been involved with in the '50s. It's also a matter of how he governed and the legacy he left as a post-apartheid president.

I noticed an article while writing this, saying that as it happened, South Africa pretty much went on with its life when he died, and that was the way he would have wanted it. That in itself amounts to a pretty big plus.

Anthony said...

Mandela was jailed in 1962. Necklacing didn't pop up until the mid-80s and the overwhelming majority of its targets were not 'white captives' as you allege, but blacks. It was usually carried out in black townships by mobs on people they suspected of being collaborators or common criminals. Out of curiosity, where are you getting your information to the contrary from?

Also, its worth keeping in mind that Nelson Mandela started off as a believer in non-violence. After the demolition of Sofiatown, the Sharpeville massacre and the banning of black anti-apartheid organizations (including but not limited to the ANC) Mandela became convinced the only way to overthrow the government was through violence. He was very vocal about that belief and was initially out of step with the ANC, but he and subsequent events brought them around.

Its also worth noting that in the time Mandela was walking around free, the ANC's military wing was focused on sabotage (blowing up power substations, burning crops) though roughly two decades after Mandela's jailing, tactically it morphed into a more traditional terror organization (targeting people not infrastructure and not just employees of the government, but civilians). But don't take my word about Mandela's crimes, below is a rather thorough account of the trial.


If you weren't able to find specific evidence of Mandela advocating non-violence, you didn't look very hard. Before the razing of Sofiatown (prosperous non-white township rezoned for whites only who inhabitants were driven out at gunpoint by the police) Mandela had been a peaceful protest leader for years (nods towards The Defiance Campaign) and the ANC had been like the NAACP, a legal organization that favored petitions and non-compliance rather than violence.

Pacifism is fine and good in the right circumstances, but against the wrong people it does no good Gandhi was a great man dedicated to his ideals and was certainly the right man at the right time in the right place, but he thought the ideal strategy for Jews being sent to death camps was non-violence resistance...

I don't see a deep need to compare different historical figures, but I will note that Mandela is no Washington. The government oppression that kicked off the American revolution was orders of magnitude below what black South Africans faced. As a point of comparison, the infamous in US history Boston Massacre killed 5, the apparently less infamous in US history Sharpesville Massacre killed 69.

Mandela was no saint (it would have saved a lot of lives if he had been more active about AIDS while in power) but he was the right man in the right place at the right time.

Patriot said...

Also.....Winnie Mandela, his wife at the time (now ex), was a great believer in using the gasoline filled tires around the necks of her 'opponents.' If I remember, he distanced himself from her once he was freed, and ultimately renounced and rejected her after a time.

What a beauty.

Critch said...

He always struck me a as a very compliated man, who may not have had any hard fast ideaologies until he went to prison. I'm not sure why he was the symbol for the ANC and the anti-Apratheid groups, he didn't seem to be particularly notable. I give him a lot of credit for holidng SA together, I know it took some licks, but he tried.

it was so fashionalble to be anti apartheid that many westerners did not stop to notice that 90% of the SA Army was black, they could have overthrown the whites anyime they wanted to,,,why didn't they? I tell you why, they looked around and they saw what black people were doing to other black people on that continent and decided life was fairly good and safe. Pefect? No. But people will often trade security for freedom. I'm friends with 2 SA ex-pats, both white who left because they see their native country going down the tubes in the near future. Both served in the SA Army and fought in Angola, both will tell you they trusted their black counterparts implicitly, its the black civilians they didn't trust.

T-Rav said...

Critch, I don't have any particular information about the SA army to verify what you're saying. I do know that despite its oppressive apartheid measures, the country saw a significant influx of blacks from elsewhere in Africa during the '70s and '80s, largely because their homelands were such economic basketcases by that time.

I don't really have an answer for you on Mandela's ideology. Like you suggest, it did shift around quite a bit, and there weren't many (if any) moments when he carefully toed the party line on anything. And that has a lot to do with why South Africa hasn't turned out worse.

T-Rav said...

Patriot, that's very true. Winnie Mandela was a real piece of work from what all the evidence suggests, though I understand that their estrangement was for some personal reasons as well.

Anthony said...


The SADF was overwhelmingly white (in no small part due to mandatory conscription for white males) during the four decades it existed.



BevfromNYC said...

As to the competing Saint v. Sinner perceptions of Nelson Mandela. He was not perfect. And in today's world of instant widespread and available information, it is much easier to see how both sides can parse out the "facts" to create their own "biography" of someone who was a great and influential man. He surrounded himself with unsavory organizations and government leaders much like many political prisoners who eventually become the leaders, But he left an overarching perception that he was wise in choosing reconciliation rather than retaliation (mostly).

What I find interesting is how little credit Frederik Willem de Klerk gets for freeing Mandela and brokering the end of apartheid in South Africa. I can be harder to convince leaders to give up power than it can be to convince people to take power.

T-Rav said...

Sorry, was traveling.

Bev, it's often very hard to convince people to give up power, so de Klerk definitely deserves more credit than he gets. Especially given that the Dutch Afrikaaners he was a member of were really wedded to the apartheid system for a long time.

Mandela's whole arc reminds me of a quote I read once from Abe Lincoln (might have mentioned it before): "Anyone can show character under suffering. If you want to test the true nature of a man, give him power." I think the final verdict on Mandela is that he passed that test. Might not have aced it, but definitely passed it.

Tennessee Jed said...

T-Rav - nice assessment. I was out virtually all day and just got to read it.

T-Rav said...

Thanks Jed! Nothing authoritative here, just my own somewhat rambling thoughts on Mandela and what he means.

Anonymous said...

"Heck, until recently I didn't know why he was in prison in the first place."

And boy, oh boy does it show. Next time around at least check the Wikipedia entry on necklacing before posting.

Individualist said...

T-Rav - Very true

Unless I am mistaken wasn't "necklacing" was targeted against blacks in South Africa as much as whites. The ANC was at odds with the Zulus (I forget what their faction is called) and some of the tribal infighting was rather bitter. I think I read somewhere that one of the points to Apartheid was to segregate these tribes as much as they were to segregate whites.

Not that nay of this was right.

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