Mandela’s sturdy legacy

Mandela’s sturdy legacy
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Speaking strictly as a cartoonist, one of the things that always stood out to me about Nelson Mandela was his wonderfully warm, happy face. Though craggy, freckled, and lined, his was a face with a truly beautiful smile, the rare sort of face, in fact, that seems naturally predisposed to smiling. Even when I was a small kid, and obviously didn’t grasp the political and historic importance of the man, I remember understanding, simply from looking at him, that this was one of the good guys. It made sense that he was so beloved, for he looked like the kind of man who loved others.

We don’t choose our faces, of course, but they are shaped by our experiences and character. In this picture on the right, for instance, we see P.W. Botha — South Africa’s last hardline apartheid president — and his wife, Elize. Their faces are grotesque and unloveable, he glowering out suspiciously at the world with his sunken, dark eyes (he was always glowering), she beaming with smug obliviousness. They look like precisely what they were: the tragic, ridiculous rulers of a government whose time was nearly up.

In this era of cynicism, it’s natural to want to believe Nelson Mandela does not deserve all the hype his death is presently receiving. That he was somehow overrated or more wicked than he seemed. And in fairness, the man obviously did have his sins. Mandela stands alone in the company of civil rights activists like Ghandi, MLK and his own compatriot Desmond Tutu in having explicitly endorsed hateful violence as a reasonable means to achieving his ends. It’s now fashionable to dismiss as racist or insane anyone who considered Umkhonto We Sizwe  (“Spear of the Nation”) — the armed resistance faction of the African National Congress party Mandela founded and led — a “terrorist” organization, but the group is considered responsible for thousands of civilian deaths, born from hundreds of bomb attacks against, railroads, police stations, court houses, shopping malls, and in one particularly bloody incident, a Pretoria government building. It was also true that the ANC practiced the worst sort of the-enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend opportunism, an attitude that greatly compromised the group’s pro-democracy credentials through alliances with the USSR, Arafat’s PLO, Quadaffi’s Libya, Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, and Castro’s Cuba. Mandela never distanced himself from these regimes even once he became president of a free South Africa — and therefore the original context for the opportunistic allegiances became redundant — a fact which would greatly undermine his credibility in his later years when he tried (in rather shrill and sloppy terms) to denounce the human rights record of the Bush administration.

But to argue, as some on the reactionary side of the right have predictably begun to do, that these flaws somehow represent the essence of Mandela, the “true” Mandela that we’re not supposed to remember or whatever, is to willfully ignore the sheer magnitude of what the man achieved, at both a political and human level, in favor of a petty ideological — and decidedly ahistorical — focus.

In 1962, Mandela was found guilty of two obviously trumped-up charges — inciting workers to strike, and attempting to leave the country without a permit — and sentenced to five years on the former leper colony of Robben Island. Two years later, following a massive government raid on ANC headquarters, his charges were upgraded to subversion and his imprisonment to life. During the trial, he spoke elegantly and forcefully of why he had chosen his path of agitation, and clarified that whatever controversial tactics and alliances his group pursued along the way, his end goal remained a functional South African democracy, free from both “white domination” and “black domination,” governed only by “racial harmony and freedom for all.” For more than a quarter-century, those words, his last words as a free man, inspired the world with the promise that South Africa didn’t have to be what it was — a racist, paranoid global pariah — and did indeed possess a principled class of moderate, educated black democrats ready to govern — and not merely a clique of genocidal Communist dictators-in-waiting, as opponents constantly claimed.

In 1990, when Mandela was finally released by the brave, reformist government of President F.W. de Klerk, he immediately emerged as the consensus leader of all future black aspirations. In many ways his political career had benefitted from his imprisonment — his public absence for 27 long years had not only allowed his popular image to stay frozen in the form of the eloquent courtroom orator, but had also left him relatively untainted by the worst of the ANC’s excesses, which, though he refused to denounce, were quite obviously committed on orders other than his own. With President de Klerk, he negotiated the end of apartheid, the end of armed struggle, the end of international sanctions, and the terms of building a new nation; a nation stripped of special privileges for its white minority, but also not hostile towards it — in other words, Mandela’s original promise of a democracy free of both black and white domination made real.

After the ANC secured a decisive parliamentary majority in South Africa’s first post-racial elections of 1994, and Mandela was appointed president, the new leader made the consolidation of that vision the purpose of his mandate. He cobbled together a racially diverse cabinet (including de Klerk and several old regime hardliners), allowed white bureaucrats, judges, and generals to keep their posts while instituting aggressive affirmative action programs to pick their eventual replacements. Though discrimination was now outlawed, Mandela insisted he had no interest in seeking retroactive punishment against those who had practiced it for so long. Instead, a “Truth and Reconciliation” commission was set up, in which thousands of victims and perpetrators alike would testify to the crimes of apartheid for the sake of the historic record, but no charges would be formally laid.

Economically, the president sharply rebuffed his former Marxist allies who had hoped majority rule would bring with it massive nationalization of industry and an aggressive socialist redistribution of wealth, and instead pursued a broadly free-market agenda, which, coupled with a post-sanctions spike in international investment, led to steady GDP growth that helped finance a generous, color-blind welfare state. In 1997 he helped steer the creation of an inspiring new constitution, which not only contained some of the world’s clearest and most forceful declarations of human rights (including the first-ever explicit promise by any state to forbid discrimination on the basis of “sexual orientation”), but also outlined an ingenious new form of government that deftly combined the best elements of British-style parliamentarism with American-style presidential checks and balances.

Perhaps most importantly of all, in 1999, when Mandela’s five-year term ended, he announced he would not be seeking another. In that sense, it’s absolutely right to compare him to George Washington, since both men well understood the importance of establishing the democratic precedent that no ruler, no matter how popular, should regard national leadership as anything but a temporary responsibility. In the context of Africa, in which thirty-year presidencies are not at all uncommon, it was a lesson particularly overdue.

Was Mandela perfect? Obviously not, but awareness of his flaws should only highlight the contrasting enormity of his successes. Rare are the men in history whose natural gifts made them so tremendously well-suited for the precise moment in which they were summoned to serve, and all of us, even those thousands of miles away from South Africa — emotionally as well as geographically — are fortunate to have witnessed such a figure in our own lifetimes.

It will be long before we see another.


  1. ThePsudo

    Nothing could interest me more than "an ingenious new form of government that deftly combined the best elements of British-style parliamentarism with American-style presidential checks and balances." Can you recommend a book about it, so that I may drown myself in the minutia of the system and its rationale?

  2. JJ McCullough

    I suggest just reading the constitution itself! It's remarkably well-written and clear:

  3. Rudi

    And ignored.

  4. Taylor

    "16. Freedom of expression

    Everyone has the right to freedom of expression, which includes ­
    freedom of the press and other media;
    freedom to receive or impart information or ideas;
    freedom of artistic creativity; and
    academic freedom and freedom of scientific research.
    The right in subsection (1) does not extend to ­
    propaganda for war;
    incitement of imminent violence; or
    advocacy of hatred that is based on race, ethnicity, gender or religion, and that constitutes incitement to cause harm."

    Perfection. Especially that "and" in the last clause.

  5. Les

    Indeed, without that 'and' there such could easily be used to suppress unpopular speech, which does more harm than good.

    If the bigots of every description are silenced in public discourse they will not disappear, they will simply retreat to their own underground echo-chambers reinforcing their own poisonous opinions and seasoning them with resentment until they eventually explode. Better to let them have their own spot in the light where their ideas and ideals can be examined out in the open and questioned in honest debate.

  6. Joe

    Regardless of his flaws – or even because of them and the way he overcame them – Nelson Mandela is definitely the greatest man of our lifetimes. I can't possibly understand people who fail to realize what this man represented to our world.

  7. Jon Bennett

    I'd argue that Mendela's terrorism was justified considering the vileness of Apartheid. His rule afterward was inspiring the way he was able to bring people together despite of his violent past.

    I think it's also fair to say that since Mendela's administration, South Africa's economy has deteriorated from on par with most European powers to marginally above the rest of Sub-Saharan Africa.

  8. w00062016

    Arguing terrorism is justified because you're the good guy is a dangerous road to go down. Also there's the distinct possibility that the terrorist acts committed by the armed wing of the ANC (which, it should be noted, Mandela only controlled for a short period of time so his culpability in these acts it debatable) actually hurt the cause. Every time a bomb went off in a civilian area the Apartheid government mercilessly exploited it as "proof" that the ANC were nothing more than a bunch of murderous communists.

  9. Ben

    The murder of civilians is never justified and acts of violence in and of themselves are only tenuously so. Arguing in support of any terrorist attack is idiocy.

  10. Rudi

    Okay fine Jon, then I'm going to baselessly "argue" that 9/11 was justified considering the vileness of "American imperialism." Bam, moral relativism to the rescue, Bin Laden was a saint and the only reason why you'd disagree with me is because you're pro-imperialist, racist, and an Islamophobe!

  11. Devil Child

    Under White Rule, South Africa didn't count 90% of its citizens in such measurements. Not to mention the nation having to deal with the singular most devastating plague the world had seen since the First World War more than almost any other nation in the world.

    But even if your counting of the economy took Black South Africans into account both times, pre-Mandela, 90% weren't citizens, post-Mandela, 100% are.

  12. drs

    "South Africa's economy has deteriorated from on par with most European powers to marginally above the rest of Sub-Saharan Africa. "

    What are you basing that on? South African never had a European GDP per capita; conversely it is at $7500 today, which is far ahead of most of Africa, often 10x more than other sub-Saharan countries. It fell behind Earth-at-large between 1990 and 2002, but has been growing rapidly since 2002 (some of that might be exchange rate fluctuations, I'm not sure whether Google Data uses nominal or PPP figures.)

  13. Guest

    Well written JJ.
    I generally agree – while Mandela was no saint they way he conducted himself post-Robben Island was saintly.
    I think this is what sets him apart for me. He had every right to be indignant, outraged and vindictive – but put all that aside to help a nation heal and come together.
    The sad part is that modern South Africa is struggling to live up to those aspirations.

  14. Greg Hallock

    Some of you commentors, not specifically above, really have ego issues that you need to deal with, let JJ express his views without trying to engage his.

    'oh I think' , 'normally I agree, bue', etc

    Shut it. No one cares. Do you people not get that?

    Topic, not author. You see something that pisses you off in newspaper, you don't write the author do you? Just because you can angle your political opionion at the author, doen't mean you have to.

  15. Zulu

    Dude lay off. This is a website about political opinion and there is a comment section. The point of politics is to engage in one another in debate.

  16. Greg Hallock

    I've been coming here since he started, it is literally just a few people I'm referring to, they talk 'at' JJ, that isn't tolerated on PennyArcade and the norm for webcomics forums.

    Also, Canadians don't have this 'douchebag' attitude spread across the net by Americans, if you havn't noticed Canadians attacking tha 'attackers' you haven't been paying attention.

    This is culture war, civility will return the way it was established… nagging people into submission.

  17. Taylor

    Every site has its own rhythm. This isn't Penny Arcade.

    JJ has the right to approve comments or set the rules. If he does so, we'll follow. Until then, take a pill.

  18. Dryhad

    "You must not address other people" he addressed to other people.

    Also, most newspapers have a letters to the editor section which is pretty much exactly for that purpose.

  19. Greg Hallock

    Because editors author content…. oh wait, no they don't. They are editors. They edit others content.

    If some author wants you to talk about what they think and not the content they create, then why make content? To express opinion, and the last thing someone expressing their opinion wants, is your opinion of their opinion.

    In public we behave a certain way, online we dellude ourselves were anonymous online and the proceed to behave like 'dickwolves', if there is a mass uprising against online assholes, deal with it.

  20. Dryhad

    Why do you think the distinction between editor and author makes a difference? You claimed that nobody would dream of writing a response to something they read in a newspaper, yet people do that every day and those responses are published every day. If you want to split hairs about the structural differences between a newspaper with dedicated editorial staff and a self-managed webcomic, fine, but I don't think it will make the analogy any more favourable to your original intent.

    As for the rest of it, well I'm sorry but you're just plain wrong. If J.J. doesn't want other people's opinions on his website then he doesn't need to have this comments section. On multiple occasions he has explicitly solicited such opinions by ending his blog with something like "what do you think?" Furthermore, is your hypocrisy truly lost on you? You're expressing an opinion about my and many others' opinions. I'm happy to hear your opinion (contrary to your belief that nobody could possibly want that) but not happy to hear your hypocrisy. Using what I assume is your real name (for all intents and purposes it is still anonymity since I have no way of verifying it) does not change that.

    William Grieve, whose name means nothing to you and never will.

  21. Devil Child

    Madiba shall never be forgotten.

    But following him'll be a hell of a thing.

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