The Passing of Nelson Mandela, 1918-2013

Nelson Mandela died today at 95. There is an excellent interactive piece in The New York Times documenting Mandela’s life and achievements. Another NYT article provides a moving quote from President Obama:

His commitment to transfer power and reconcile with those who jailed him set an example that all humanity should aspire to,” a grim President Obama said Thursday evening, describing Mr. Mandela as an “influential, courageous and profoundly good” man who inspired millions — including himself — to a spirit of reconciliation.

While the white supremacy of a “Social Darwinist” type began to wane in various British colonies in Africa and Asia after 1945, South Africa continued to develop “a systematic and legalized discrimination” that shaped “the economic, social and political structure of the whole country in a more pervasive way than elsewhere…Under ‘apartheid’, South Africa from the late 1940s diverged from international trends and was marked out for isolation.”[ref]Nigel Worden, The Making of Modern South Africa: Conquest, Apartheid, Democracy, 4th ed. (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2007), 73.[/ref] White supremacy in South Africa could be found even among the earliest Dutch colonialists. The social divide between blacks and whites was in a sense normalized by slavery, which lasted from 1658 to 1834. Historians argue that this social divide created a “‘dual economy’ with two distinct societies: a white urban and capitalist agrarian system on the one hand and a rural impoverished and stagnating African sector on the other.”[ref]Ibid., 2.[/ref] While racial legislation existed prior to apartheid, full-blown segregation took place once the National Party gained control of the government from 1948 to 1994. It wasn’t until 1990 that the National Party lifted the ban on the African National Congress, eventually leading to the ANC’s victory in the 1994 elections and Mandela’s inauguration as President. As yet another NYT article explains,

The government [Mandela] formed when he finally won the chance was an improbable fusion of races and beliefs, including many of his former oppressors. When he became president, he invited one of his white wardens to the inauguration. Mr. Mandela overcame a personal mistrust bordering on loathing to share both power and a Nobel Peace Prize with the white president who preceded him, F. W. de Klerk.

And as president, from 1994 to 1999, he devoted much energy to moderating the bitterness of his black electorate and to reassuring whites against their fears of vengeance.

“In 1996,” writes historian Nigel Worden, “the new government approved a constitution which was one of the most liberal in the world, and set up commissions to safeguard gender and individual human rights.”[ref]Ibid., 160.[/ref] This was in-step with Mandela’s goal, which was to “enter into a covenant that we shall build a society in which all South Africans, both black and white, will be able to walk tall, without any fear in their hearts, assured of their inalienable right to human dignity – a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world.” This isn’t to say that South Africa hasn’t seen numerous problems since the ANC took power (far from it).[ref]For example, see “Over the Rainbow,” The Economist (Oct., 20, 2012):; “Cheerleaders and Naysayers,” The Economist (March 2, 2013): Economist Deirdre McCloskey says, “If…South Africa can be persuaded to adopt the liberal economic principles that are presently enriching China and India…there is no reason why in forty years the grandchildren of presently poor…South Africans cannot enjoy something pretty close to Western European standards of living…On the other hand, if…South Africa persist[s] in unhelpful economic policies (such as South Africa’s labor laws based on German models), they can retain a gigantic, unemployed underclass and an inferior position relative to the United States, just as long as they find that attractive” (McCloskey, Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can’t Explain the Modern World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010, 123). Mandela actually shifted more toward markets after a 1992 meeting of the World Economic Forum.[/ref] But Mandela stepped into the role of a leader during the transition from apartheid to a multiracial democracy. In his TED talk on corruption in Africa, Ghanaian economist George Ayittey posed a “leadership challenge” to name 20 good African leaders. The first one listed? “Nelson Mandela, of course.” (He notes that people can’t get past 15, demonstrating the deficiency in African leadership.)

Perhaps The Onion is right: “the revered humanitarian has become the first politician in recorded history to actually be missed.”