Nelson Mandela


Nelson Mandela died a few days ago, and is being celebrated for his accomplishments. I’m sorry to say I didn’t pay much attention to his life, but am very impressed with the role he played in the reform of South Africa, and particularly the minimal violence with which that was accomplished.

That wasn’t completely unprecedented. The Soviet empire had already broken up pretty bloodlessly (the bloodshed came later), but changing regimes without blood is relatively unusual. Most governments struggle to hold onto power until the last moment, and don’t seem to care how many people they hurt or kill. F.W. de Klerk must be given credit for realizing that apartheid was wrong, ought not to continue any longer, and arranging for Mandela to be freed.

After that we have to commend Mr. Mandela for being able to rise to power without using thuggish tactics, and not taking revenge on white people after becoming president. Instead, the Truth and Reconciliation commission was established, with the idea of healing the country instead of taking revenge–on either side. Groups with that kind of aim are needed all over the world, wherever people treat each other unjustly, and need to acknowledge their abusiveness and their own wounds. When people understand that people different from them are also people, they can behave productively, instead of getting caught up in endless cycles of hate and violence.

We don’t have such a commission in this country, but we need one. We have abusiveness and victimization, with whole spectra of bad behavior, and few people are willing to acknowledge their own wrongness. Until some do, we’re liable to be stuck in the polarization existing today, which also has a long history. I don’t know if South Africa’s version of racism was much less virulent than our own, but they seem to have let go of it relatively easily. Our radicals (and there are more of them in public view than usual) seem to be bitterly committed. Mr. Mandela stands for a viewpoint few of them seem willing to embrace.

After all, he spent almost 30 years in prison. Most of us would be bitterly resentful. Apparently he said that when he left prison he realized he had to leave hate and resentment there. Would that more of us were so wise. Hate and resentment is what most of us hang onto longer than anything else.

Articles I’ve seen emphasize Mandela’s political skills as well as his attitude. He had to take advantage of his openings, and did so. No doubt he was also an angry man, but he was willing to put that anger aside in favor of making his country work well. That makes him a statesman, not just a politician.

In his policy of leading whites as well as blacks, instead of blacks against whites (as he could have done), Mandela resembles the Haitian leader Toussaint l’Ouverture, who was probably the greatest and wisest of the leaders of that revolution. He tried to keep whites in Haiti, and though there were retributive massacres when blacks came to power, one of Toussaint’s biographers opines that blacks overall treated whites better than when the shoe was on the other foot. But Napoleon brought Toussaint to France, where he imprisoned him in the Alps until he caught pneumonia, and died. Had he taken power when Haiti achieved independence, the country’s subsequent history might have been different. Unfortunately, Haiti was a small country with a lot of great powers in their neighborhood: France, Spain, Great Britain, and the USA. All of them meddled, and Haiti is now one of the poorest countries in the world. Mandela’s South Africa has been in a more fortunate position. But both Toussaint and Mandela are notable for having been black leaders who managed successful revolutions. Toussaint’s Haiti is the only slave society we know of to have successfully rebelled; Mandela one of the few leaders to manage a successful transition with minimal violence.

We don’t know South Africa’s future, but that it has survived the change of regimes with relatively little trouble bodes well. That whites were willing to support the election of Mandela to president made that possible, and that’s probably largely because Mandela made it clear that he didn’t hate whites, and wasn’t looking for revenge. He was willing to support South African sports, which of course had been segregated up until then, because he knew that many people love sports, and sports can break down many barriers, as we’ve seen in this country.

Whether South Africa’s leaders will continue to be wise after Mandela’s departure remains to be seen. We can hope. We can also hope that more politicians in this country will follow his example, and work for the people of the country as a whole, and not just for certain constituencies. All countries face a variety of problems, and our current problems include the whole technological basis of most countries in the world. I suppose it’s inevitable for those problems to be violently controversial. Solve the problems of technology, and perhaps many political problems will fade away. But in the meantime, the political problems make the solution of more basic problems even more difficult.

Mandela set a great example of leadership. I hope many will be inspired to emulate him.


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