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Nelson Mandela: Peace at Last

17 December 2013

Nelson Mandela: Peace at Last

By Gwynne Dyer

The Catholic Church consecrates saints with less pomp and sentimentality than was lavished on Nelson Mandela during the week-long media orgy that we have just been through. We haven’t seen such a ridiculous spectacle since…oh, since the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy three weeks ago. But at least the Kennedy orgy was over a lot faster – and nobody compared him to Gandhi or Christ.

Pity the poor journalists who had to grind out endless stories about what was hardly a news event at all – 95-year-old man dies after lengthy illness – and inevitably ended up sounding like sycophants and fools. True, the world needed (or at least wanted) a political icon of perfect virtue, but the beatification of Nelson Mandela took much too long.

The problem was that everybody in the media knew well in advance that Mandela was dying, and had time to invest millions in preparing to “cover” the event. Hotel rooms and telecom facilities were booked, crews and anchors were deployed, and the expense had to be justified by round-the-clock, wall-to-wall coverage of funeral orations, vox pop interviews, and talking heads.

And of course all the world’s politicians showed up for the greatest photo op of the decade, including many who had condemned Mandela as a terrorist before he pulled off a peaceful transition from apartheid to majority rule in South Africa. But now that the babble of rhetoric has died down and just before the myth takes over completely, let us talk honestly about who he was and what he accomplished.

Mandela understood that South Africans needed an icon, not a mere mortal man, as the founding hero of their new democracy, but he had a strong sense of irony. It would have got plenty of exercise as he watched the local politicos and the foreign dignitaries strew metaphorical flowers on his grave.

The man whom they buried at Qunu on Sunday was arrested by the white minority regime in 1963, probably on a tip from the US Central Intelligence Agency. He was the head of the African National Congress’s military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), at the time, and continued to back its campaign of sabotage, bombing and attacks on military and police targets throughout his 27 years in prison.

If the South African Communist Party is to be believed, he was a member of its central committee at the time of his arrest. It was a different time, when US President Ronald Reagan could declare that the apartheid regime was “essential to the Free World,” and the ANC’s main international supporters were the Soviet Union and Cuba. Mandela might have ended up as a man of violence if he had not gone to prison.

Instead, in prison, he had the time to develop his ideas about reconciliation and persuade the other ANC leaders who were also confined to Robben Island of their value. By the time he came out of prison in 1990, he had become the man that everybody knew they could trust – including the whites.

During the next four years, when he and F.W. De Klerk, the last white president, negotiated the transfer of power from the white minority to the black majority, he really was the indispensable man. His commitment to reconciliation was so visible and genuine that whites were willing to do what had once seemed inconceivable: to hand over power before they absolutely had to.

If you want to know what South Africa would have looked like if the whites had clung to power down to the last ditch, look at Syria today. But it was not only Mandela who saved the country from that fate: they gave the Nobel Peace Prize to both Mandela and De Klerk, because the miracle could not have happened if De Klerk had not had the will and the skill to lead his own Afrikaner tribe out of power.

Then, after the first free election in 1994, Mandela became the president, and frankly he wasn’t very good at it. He had no executive experience, nor much aptitude for it.

Thabo Mbeki did most of the hard administrative work behind the scenes during Mandela’s presidency (1994-1999), while Mandela greeted visiting celebrities, hobnobbed with the rich and famous, and solicited donations for various causes that included, unfortunately, his own extensive family. He was not personally corrupt, but he was involved in a few dubious deals, and he tolerated corruption in others.

But he did his country one last big favour: he retired at the end of his first term rather than clinging to power. He was already 81 years old at that time, but lesser men (Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, for instance) have not let that stop them. And he even had a few good years left to enjoy his family before age began to drag him down.

He was not a saint; he was just a man. But he was the right man at the right time.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 12. (“Pity…long”; and “Thabo…others”)

 

 

 

Mandela’s Legacy

13 June 2013

Mandela’s Legacy

By Gwynne Dyer

As I write this Nelson Mandela is still with us. He may even still be living at the end of this year. But this is his fourth hospitalisation in six months, and the prognosis for 94-year-old men with persistent lung infections is not good. How will South Africa do without him?

Wrong question, actually. In practice, South Africa has been doing without him for more than a decade already – but psychologically, it is just now getting to grips with the reality that he will soon be gone entirely.

For all its many faults and failures, post-apartheid South Africa is a miracle that few expected to happen. Although Mandela retired from the presidency in 1999, fourteen years later he is still seen as the man who made the magic work, and somehow the guarantor that it will go on working. If only in some vague and formless way, a great many people fear that his death will remove that safety net.

Just in the past two weeks, however, the tone of the discussion has begun to change. On hearing that Nelson Mandela had been admitted to hospital yet again, Andrew Mlangeni, one of his dearest friends and once a fellow-prisoner on Robben Island, said simply: “It’s time to let him go. The family must release him, so that God may have his own way with him…Once the family releases him, the people of South Africa will follow.”

That one comment opened the floodgates, for it had a strong resonance in traditional African culture, which holds that a very sick person cannot die until his family “releases” him. They have to give him “permission” to die, by reassuring him that his loved ones will be fine when he’s gone. So South Africans must now accept that they can get along without Nelson Mandela, and then he will be free to go.

It’s not that everybody really believes in this tradition, but it frames the conversation in more positive and less distressing way. People can argue about whether or not South Africa is doing as well as it should, but they can at least agree that Mandela got the country safely through the most dangerous phase of the transition, and that they can carry on with the job of building a just and democratic society without him.

Except for President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, of course. Mugabe has always deeply resented the fact that Nelson Mandela is revered as the father of his nation while he himself is seen as a vicious tyrant who has ruined his country. So he seized the opportunity of a recent high-profile interview on South African television to accuse Mandela of having failed in his duty to South Africa’s black majority: he had been too soft on the whites.

What would have particularly annoyed Mandela, if he was well enough to watch the show, was that the interviewer was Dali Tambo, the son of his oldest and most trusted ally, the late Oliver Tambo. As young lawyers, the two men co-founded South Africa’s first black-run legal office in 1952, and when Tambo became the president-in-exile of the African National Congress he made Mandela’s release from prison its highest priority.

Dali Tambo is another kettle of fish: a flamboyant man who has traded on his family name to forge a career as a TV interviewer. He has his own soft-focus interview show, “People of the South,” and recently he persuaded Robert Mugabe to give him a two-hour interview. In the course of it,

Mugabe dismissed Mandela as “too much of a saint.”

“Mandela has gone a bit too far in doing good to the non-black communities, really in some cases at the expense of blacks,” the Zimbabwean dictator said. “That’s being too saintly, too good, too much of a saint.”

Nonsense. What Nelson Mandela and his white negotiating partner, F.W. De Klerk, were trying to avoid in the early 1990s was a South African civil war that would have killed millions and lasted for a very long time. The 20 percent white minority were heavily armed, and they had nowhere else to go. Their families, for the most part, had been in South Africa for at least a century.

Therefore, a settlement that gave South Africa a peaceful (and hopefully prosperous) democratic future had to be one in which the whites still had a future. So you either make the kind of deal that Mandela and De Klerk made, in which nobody loses too much, or you submit to a future that would make the current civil war in Syria look like a tea party.

And by the way, Mugabe was making his remarks in a country whose economy has been so devastated by his “tougher” approach that fully one-quarter of the population has fled abroad in search of work, mostly to South Africa.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu, talking about Mandela’s inevitable death, said last week: “The best memorial to Nelson Mandela would be a democracy that was really up and running: a democracy in which every single person in South Africa knew that they mattered.” That is still some distance away, but Mandela has laid the foundations. He was the right man for the job: a saint who also understood realpolitik.

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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 8, 9 and 13. (“What would…saint”; and “And by…Africa”)