Nelson Mandela (1918-2013) emerged as one of the true heroes of the late 20th Century. He’s inspired young people, helped his country avoid a blood bath which many thought was inevitable, and demonstrated the power of forgiveness and truth over vengeance and anger.
The path Mandela took to this position was interesting. He started out inspired by Gandhi, who had initially been active in South Africa, committed to non-violent resistance. His activism against the South African apartheid regime began in earnest after apartheid was put in place as an official policy in 1948 by the openly racist National Party. But Mandela’s commitment to non-violence changed on March 21, 1960, the day of the Sharpeville massacre. 69 protesters were killed by police, and it became clear that the government would use all means to support apartheid.
Mandela then gave up non-violence and helped form the violent “Spear of the Nation” or MK. Drawing inspiration from Castro, Che Guevara, and Nasser, Mandela took a more radical stance. He never openly advocated communism, but there were clearly connections between the MK and communist radicals. Moreover, he went to Ethiopia to study guerrilla warfare, as the ANC saw the only option against the National Party to be violence.
On August 5, 1962 he was arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment. Even in prison he refused to renounce violence; he said the ANC should renounce violence only when the government would renounce violence against the ANC. He would remain in prison until 1990, becoming a symbol of the anti-apartheid movement. Yet Cold War politics muddied the waters.
While most people were sympathetic to the ANC’s willingness to use violence against the racist South African regime, it also provided cover for those willing to forgive racist oppression due to the National Party’s embrace of anti-Communism. With the Cold War intense, the US wanted a strong ally in Africa, and South Africa was a perfect choice. They had gold, minerals, wealth and a strategic location. When people complained about the racism of apartheid, the US and UK could either say they refuse to infringe on South African sovereignty, or argue that they also opposed apartheid, but Mandela and the ANC were not the answer. Moving from apartheid to communism would be to go from one form of oppression to another. With such rationalizations, support for the apartheid regime remained consistent until near the end.
For many on the right, it was far better to support institutionalized racism that dehumanized millions than risk the possibility that a majority black government in South Africa might be friendly to communism. Indeed, the coziness the West showed to the racist government did nothing but push the ANC towards anti-American regimes.
In the eighties the tide started to turn. While the Reagan Administration gamely tried to pretend that it was not supportive of apartheid, embracing the “Sullivan Principles” regarding rules for investment in South Africa (principles designed to benefit blacks and put conditions on investment), the apartheid regime was becoming untenable. Congress overrode Reagan vetos of sanctions against South Africa. Not only was global pressure mounting, making South Africa a pariah state, but young people in South Africa were increasingly opposed to the racist philosophy that defined apartheid and the National Party.
Ironically both Communism and apartheid were undone by the same force – globalization. The inability of South Africa to compete in a globalized world economy along with the isolation of dysfunctional communist economies led both systems to collapse almost simultaneously. That also meant that the apartheid regime had lost its last defense – if there was no Cold War, there was absolutely no reason for the West to support the National Party in South Africa.
Still, the conventional wisdom in the West was that the 1990s would see a South African bloodbath. The Nationalists would hold on to power, the ANC would grow violent and aggressive, as the blacks would rise up in a mass revolt. In this context the last Nationalist President, F.W. DeKlerk, who took power in September 1989, advocated to end apartheid and official racism. To symbolize the significance of this move, he ordered the release of Nelson Mandela.
Nelson Mandela had been in prison for nearly 28 years. He could have been bitter, angry and seeking revenge. Many of the whites in South Africa opposed the ending of apartheid, it could have all gone badly. However, Mandela embraced reconciliation — truth commissions instead of revenge seeking. An embrace of a South Africa where the majority would now rule, but without reverse racism or a desire to avenge the past.
The result has not been a perfect shift towards a new society. South Africa managed to make the transition smoothly, but still faces a myriad of problems. Mandela helped avoid a blood bath and put South Africa on the right path; that was all he could do – the future will have to be made by South Africans together.
Yet it’s sad to see that the far right still harbors hatred for Mandela due to abstract accusations. When Texas Senator Ted Cruz posted something kind about Mandela on his website, he was inundated with negative comments. True, Cruz’s constituents are farther right than most, but that kind if vitriol in ignorance of what Mandela accomplished is simply sad.
Mandela danced with radicals and extremists because he was fighting a cause and they were willing to be his allies. Though he fought evil with violence — he was not a Gandhi nor a Martin Luther King Jr. — the American revolution was also violent. British rule was arguably much less evil than the apartheid regime.
What matters is that when Mandela’s side won, he did it with grace, forgiveness and a sense of dignity that most of his opponents lacked. Mandela is remembered as one of the historical giants – a hero, an inspiration and a great man. The haters will never take that away from him. He was radical when it was necessary, but moderated when the evil he was fighting ceased to be. That is part of his greatness.