This strife among ourselves wastes our energy and destroys our unity. My message to those of you involved in this battle of brother against brother is this: Take your guns, your knives, and your pangas, and throw them into the sea! ~Nelson Mandela
When I was 25 in 1985, I took a course in South African political culture and current affairs. The general consensus at that time, at least among my professors, was that the lower third of Africa was headed inexorably towards murderous race war, probably within the next decade. The Reagan administration had no interest in mediating the situation and, in fact, tacitly supported the apartheid government in South Africa and its satellite in Rhodesia. South Africa had a nascent nuclear capability and a VERY well-armed white populous as well as a highly trained professional army and an extensive and brutal internal police apparatus. The African nationalists including the ANC had plenty of guns of their own, vastly superior numbers, time and moral authority. On the periphery, the Soviets, the CIA, the Israelis and the Organization of African Unity to name just a few, were all sniffing around. In the townships, a state of constant, low-level rebellion existed with civilians being killed on a daily basis either by a vicious police force or a murderous vigilante opposition. It seemed as if every night on the news there were more images of police massacres and the aftermath of “necklacing”. The Afrikaners were trying (and largely succeeding) to buy out the Zulus and make side deals with the mixed race half-casts who had marginally better rights than the blacks. The Communist wing of the ANC was threatening a full-scale reorganization of society if they took power and everyone knew that there was going to be a bloodbath in those circumstances. Would the US and Europe stand by if the Afrikaners lost and a black on white genocide began? Would the rest of the African continent and the US and Europe stand by if white South Africans won and sought to extend and intensify their own longstanding policy of ethnic and racial cleansing? If outside powers were seen to take a hand, would the Soviets get more involved, maybe through their client state Mozambique? After all, there are few places in the world of more strategic importance than the Cape. Southern Africa is a veritable treasure chest full of strategic materials like chromium, aluminum, beryllium, cobalt, diamonds and gold among other things. Many nations might be tempted to intervene for any number of reasons and a much larger and more general continental war was likely to start from a localized apartheid war. The Afrikaner administrations of Botha and later DeClerk were desperately looking for a way to step down from this precipice, ideally with their white supremacy intact, but there were few credible takers.
In the mid eighties, across Europe and the US, young people on college campuses began agitating for their schools and for major corporations to divest themselves of South African investments (I am proud to be one of those students), this threatened the last real connection the South African economy had with the West, and the Afrikaners understood that Reagan wouldn’t be there forever to protect them and Israel alone wasn’t much of a trading partner. The most militant elements on both the Afrikaner and Pan-African and Black Nationalist sides were ready and willing to kick this thing off, and I for one saw little chance that this could end in anything other than war waged on a map as big as the US with millions of civilians trapped in the middle.
Into this mess stepped Nelson Mandela, a man in the midst of his third decade of captivity, a man who had been tortured and abused, often in solitary confinement for as long as I had been alive. South African leader F. W. DeClerk deserves his share of the Nobel Peace Prize he and Mandela were awarded later for seeing the writing on the wall and choosing peace over war, but it is Mandela who shines. He brokered a peaceful transition to majority rule that convinced whites to largely remain in the country of their birth and keep the wheels of the economy turning, and convinced blacks to hold their rage in check and begin building a positive multiracial society. He did this through a brilliant political acumen and masterful diplomatic skill, but also in large part it seems through the power of his personal character and integrity. He had the credibility born through hardship and sacrifice among his colleagues in the ANC. This allowed him the room to negotiate with DeClerk. He had the gravitas and sense of the moment needed for the Afrikaners to take him seriously as a partner.
South Africa is not perfect and neither was Mandela, I am sure. The nation today has a terrible AIDS epidemic, and a generation later many blacks have yet to see much economic progress for themselves or their families. The ANC leaders who have come after Mandela are lesser men and they are prone to the kind of mortal weaknesses that apparently didn’t affect the great man, but one has only to look North to Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia) to see the way things might have gone if not for the smooth transition in the south. While Zimbabwe limps along on the verge of becoming a failed state still ripped by racial and class resentment on all sides, the nation Mandela built continues to nurture the seeds necessary to one day become an international powerhouse like Brazil or India.
What has happened in South Africa is still something of a miracle to me, and Mandela was the catalyst. He will of course be compared to Gandhi and MLK and there are clearly many similarities and cross-references, but perhaps the most striking and gratifying difference to me is that Nelson Mandela died in his bed at the ripe old age of 95 in a largely peaceful region of the world that he primarily made, not a martyr for whom we can only speculate as to what he might have done, but as a beloved and respected leader who served his nation and mankind to the fullest of his capacities.
When I was a young man, that part of the world looked set to explode. Because he lived and because he could put aside the wrongs done to him and his people, that never happened. We’ll never know just how bad it could have gotten. His strength gave others the strength to forgive while not forgetting; and for that the world owes Nelson Mandela a massive debt of gratitude.
~ Scott Price, APV President