Mandela’s legacy was to unify rather than divide
Nelson Mandela has died at the age of 95. After spending 27 years in prison for his efforts against racial discrimination, he was released in 1990 and became South Africa’s first post Apartheid president (1992) and one of the most celebrated winners of the Nobel Peace Prize; he is the symbol of the struggle against racial segregation for South Africans and for millions around the world who have to confront forms of discrimination from ethnicity, race or creed every day. As a true man of peace and wisdom, Mandela served as a symbol of reconciliation; he didn’t just talk about it, he lived it and perhaps one of the most genuine examples of this was the fact that he never forgot to mention the role played by last white Apartheid era President F.W. de Clerk for having been fundamental in helping to bring down apartheid. Mandela and de Clerk shared the Nobel Prize in 1994 despite the fact that their relationship was often stormy, though never to the point where they would allow their differences to get in the way of the bigger prize: peace and reconciliation.
Mandela, upon his release from prison had tremendous authority. He could have converted that authority in the kind of power now held by President Mugabe in Zimbabwe, who also led an anti-segregationist struggle and who also once enjoyed great moral standing. Mugabe is now a symbol of tyranny and arrogance; Mandela is a universal symbol of peaceful co-existence among people of all races and creeds. That is why Mandela is so great. The fact that South Africa, despite its problems, remains a democracy and one of the world’s economic powers (South Africa is a member of the BRICS and the G-20) while Zimbabwe has become an international pariah and an economic basket case illustrates the extent to which Mandela’s reconciliation and willingness to compromise worked in favor of all South Africans.
In the recent past, the death of a symbolic or important leader in an African country has served, much more often than not, as an opportunity for riots and institutional chaos. Mandela represents one of the very rare cases in which a deceased African leader leaves a truly democratic legacy. Nelson Mandela left politics in 1999 since when he has had two democratically elected successors Thabo Mbeki and current President Jacob Zuma, who will likely be re-elected in 2014. The reason for the stable democracy was that Mandela decided to compromise shunning revolutionary practices such as expropriations and expulsions of whites. Some critics, including his former wife Winnie Mandela, summed it best when they suggest that Mandela accepted a less than ideal deal for the blacks given that the economy is still in the hands of the white elite that controlled the country during Apartheid. In 1990, the year of Mandela’s release from prison, his African National Congress movement (ANC) promoted an economic program that stressed ‘redistribution’ and ‘nationalization’ of large enterprises — staples of many an African economic ‘reform’ program. Yet, Mandela had the wisdom to realize that the world had changed and that the Soviet Model (the Berlin Wall had just come down the year before) had lost to the Western model. His economic compromise was crucial in allowing white Afrikaners to embrace the end of apartheid and to accept the transformation of their society. This openness got Mandela invited to that most unlikely of venues for a socialist and revolutionary figure: the World Economic Forum at DAVOS. Mandela’s resume made him a far more suitable candidate for the DAVOS protesters’ crowd than a participant on the inside. After talking to western capitalists, Mandela showed an unexpected sense of reason; he understood that South Africa needed investment to grow and rather than risk alienating world business, he urged his ANC to shun its previous and decades long course. He rather bluntly advised the ANC that “either we keep the nationalizations and we do not get investment or we give up our attitude and we keep investment”. Within the span of little over a month, the ANC published its manifesto entitled ‘Ready to Govern’, which removed any hint of nationalization, even as it maintained its traditional base of support from the Communist Party to COSATU (Congress of South African Trade Unions), the main trade union. Today, South Africa is by no means an economic paradise, but even as Blacks represent some 80% of the population and are still not close to the levels of property and business ownership of their White counterparts, Black South Africans now control 17% of Johannesburg Stock Exchange (Africa’s most important). The African Development Bank has observed a gradual rise of a new middle class in Africa, not just South Africa, which could number as many as 300-500 million people. Since the end of Apartheid, Africa itself has become more democratic and stable and this is, no doubt, part of Mandela’s legacy.
South Africa will no doubt face another important test as it enters the post-Mandela phase. There is the fear that with Mandela the man, South Africa will bury Mandela the ‘illusion’, or Mandela, the ‘dream’ in the country’s collective imagination. Mandela’s successors, while able to ensure a high degree of stability, have lacked his moral stature. South Africa’s social and economic issues divisions remain, even if now, these exist between Blacks themselves rather than Blacks and Whites. The general economic disparity that has grown in many developed countries — with very few exceptions — has hit South Africa hard as well. Some South Africans are now speaking of the ‘economic apartheid’ phenomenon, such that the income gap between blacks and whites has increased in the past decade and where the official rate of unemployment is around 25%, at least half of which is represented by young people. This has generated a new kind of economic insecurity and a new kind of ‘enemy’ that the country thought it had long defeated with the end of apartheid: racism. Only, now, the racism is not between blacks and whites but between South Africans and foreigners from other parts of Africa, who are accused of stealing jobs, accepting lower standards, from South Africans. These are the challenges that Mandela’s political heirs will have to address and as difficult as they are, they in no way detract from his contribution to his people and to the world.
Mandela’s legacy extend beyond the many headlines and messages of praise coming from all over the world; however, if there is one thing that stands out it his ability to bring people together, to unify rather than divide. It is not surprising, then, that over 70 world leaders are making plans to attend his funeral on December 15. The seventy leaders include several ‘enemies’, Raul Castro of Cuba will sit alongside President Barack Obama of the United States, British Prime Minister Cameron (and three previous PM’s including John Major and Tony Blair) along with leaders from all over Europe – and the three living former presidents Carter, George H. Bush and George W. Bush; they will rub shoulders with Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas and Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe. Celebrities Oprah Winfrey, Peter Gabriel and U2’s Bono will also attend among a list of the who’s who of the most famous people in the world. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu decided not to attend because of the complicated security logistics and short notice; however, the general picture that will emerge at Mandela’s funeral is that the whole world will be there. Such a tribute and the widespread outpouring of affection and respect in every capital and every continent have not been seen since perhaps the death of John F. Kennedy or Mahatma Gandhi. Mandela was truly one of the most important figures of the 20th century and the world has lost a great man.
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