Dignity, humility, and courage. Those are the words, predictable as they are proper, that are being used to describe Nelson Mandela after his death on Thursday.
Few other people in the annals of the 20th century suffered such great personal indignities and yet turned the other cheek. Few others, too, managed such an explosive political moment so deftly.
Certainly no African leader is more deserving of a cult of personality (on a continent where this practice is widespread). Yet Mandela was one of those Gandhi-like figures who, if occasionally vain and tempestuous, was no self-indulgent demagogue.
In the 1980s and ’90s, as the chorus to end apartheid reached its high notes, a guerilla campaign was waged on all sides in South Africa — white segregationists versus blacks, a Zulu nationalist faction versus Mandela’s African National Congress, “coloreds” (a South African term for the Afrikaans-speaking, darker-skinned, but not black, population) on both sides. There was a very real chance that South Africa would become another Zimbabwe. The forecast was for civil war, followed by an inevitable victory by black nationalists, and then decades of score-settling through expropriation and clannish misrule.
That South Africa has avoided this outcome thus far is remarkable. The country’s internal social and economic inequality makes the United States look like a nation of levelers. (South Africa’s distribution of income is the most unequal of any country for which the World Bank compiles statistics.) Even today, it is not clear what fruits the end of apartheid has delivered to most black South Africans — except the basic dignities of the freedom of movement and the freedom of the ballot, which are not to be mocked, but which at the same time don’t fill empty bellies.
Mandela was the one who counseled patience. Justice needed to be realized, but realism demanded a slower departure from the status quo ante. Coming to power, he retained virtually all the apartheid-era bureaucracy. The Mandela government sought justice through its famous Truth and Reconciliation Commission — which offered those two things, but not the material proceeds of a reckoning.
Mandela is today revered as a saint. But it was his cautiousness and realism — his recognition that South Africa could and would become a basket case if popular passions were unloosed all at once — that were his best virtues in government.
He was one of the few who could have accomplished what he did, because everyone knew that he was a man with the most to be furious about. He had been a prisoner for almost three decades. He did not even know his family.
Revolution is the easy part. Washington knew he needed a Hamilton, Jefferson a Gallatin. Mandela’s government included both revolutionaries and technocrats. Terms like “capital attraction,” lost on most revolutionary governments, were in vogue.
Some political heroes go out in a flame of glory. Lincoln. Gandhi. Nelson Mandela grew old, and outlived by more than a decade his momentous achievements. In the last decade, he already had migrated from flesh-and-blood political hero to revered icon of history.
Mandela rarely appeared publicly in this new millennium. During the campaign that swept into office South Africa’s current president, Jacob Zuma, in 2009, Mandela made only one notable appearance that I can remember: to vote. Crowds gathered around the polling station, in a tony suburb of Johannesburg, jockeying for a look at Madiba. And a look was all that could be had.
Mandela arrived in a dark-windowed sedan, emerged, turned to the crowd and waved, walked into the polling station, did his civic duty, and left. In the air, helicopters circled. On the ground, you barely got a look at him at all. He didn’t need to speak to lend his moral gravity to a seamy political campaign. Everyone recognized Mandela as, in a word, incorruptible.
That, however, is not a word one would use to characterize the modern-day incarnation of his political movement, the ANC. Whether or not Mandela would have wanted a cult of personality, one does exist. And the ANC has exploited its iconography to raise on a pedestal many people unworthy of his name.
This is Mandela’s saddest legacy. Like so many ruling parties in Africa, the ANC has become a byword for a self-dealing, one-party rule. Its ranks are filled with senescent, go-along-to-get-along cronies. There are some good, thoughtful people in South Africa’s government, but its top leadership barely has a sense of where to guide the country, and certainly little idea of how to get there.
Mandela bequeathed to his countrymen a rare stability, a foundation to be built upon. Let’s hope South Africa’s leaders can actually emulate this great man, rather than just use his name as their label.
— Travis Kavulla, a former associate editor for National Review, worked as a reporter in eastern and southern Africa. He today lives in Montana.