Nelson Mandela leaves this world amid a massed chorus of praise. A colossus, a hero, a statesman, another Churchill, he “guided the world” according to Mr. Blair, “a legend in life and now in death,” according to Mr. Cameron. Public figures of all kinds are speaking in those high tones. Apartheid in South Africa was inhuman, and the part that Mandela played in bringing about its collapse is indeed historic. In the 1950s and 1960s, so it appears, the banned Communist Party of South Africa and the African National Congress started an armed struggle. In a much-publicized speech, British prime minister Harold Macmillan had encouraged “the winds of change” throughout Africa. National movements duly recruited followers and the likes of Jomo Kenyatta in Kenya and Julius Nyerere in Tanzania took advantage of these movements to come to power.
The question then was the fate of the whites. On what terms could they stay in independent African states? Might they be expropriated or killed? French, Portuguese, Belgian, and some British settlers thought it prudent to flee, and some were expelled — this transfer of land and power is still current, for instance in Zimbabwe. These various collapses on the part of European settlers radically changed perceptions of Empire. Hitherto Empire had been seen as positive, developing what needed to be developed, introducing the infrastructure of hospitals, communications, transport, resolving tribal disputes, and keeping the peace. Nationalist Africans could now claim that Empire had served only to enrich Europeans, and was nothing more than a criminal enterprise. Most Europeans have internalized the accusation, and believe it.
Apartheid South Africa fought with arms to survive, and when that proved a failure the victorious Africans were expected to exact revenge. Seemingly, it was not in Mandela’s character to shed blood and that is most certainly to his lasting credit. A lesser man might have behaved like Robert Mugabe and attacked the whites, wrecking the political and economic future of the Africans in the process. Now and again, Mandela showed that he could have been another Third World tyrant, sincerely embracing and approving Fidel Castro, Moammar Qaddafi, Yasser Arafat, and others. Instead he let the whites off the hook, and the massed chorus of praise rests partly on gratitude over the present, partly on guilt over the past.