He might have died in prison, tortured, broken, disappeared. And yet we can scarcely conceive how his country, his continent, the world would have been different without him. That is the measure of his greatness.
Apartheid would surely have ended, even without Mandela: with the end of the Cold War, even the most fevered Washington hawks could no longer defend the studied public tolerance, coupled with covert cooperation, that characterized the British and American stance toward that embarrassing parody of a Western democracy, that atavistic throwback to the most savagely racist colonialism.
But its ending would have been longer and uglier without Mandela’s acute sense of balance between the need for justice and the necessity of reconciliation, his ability to affirm simultaneously the absolute right of the majority to rule, and the imperative that the white minority not be dispossessed, oppressed or expelled. We should also acknowledge the last white president, de Klerk, who had the good sense to know that the game was up, and that, finally, Mandela the prisoner would have to be his collaborator in ending the old regime and inaugurating the new.
Imagine any of Mandela’s successors as South African president, or any of the other rulers of sub-Saharan Africa as de Klerk’s counterpart, rather than Mandela. I think it is literally true that not a single one of these people would have had the wisdom that Mandela showed in getting past the fact of his own oppression and seeing how to launch the new South Africa on a course more positive than any other country in Africa.
As evidence I cite the distinctly less distinguished performances of his successors in office, and the almost universal persistence in the rest of Africa of self-perpetuating authoritarian leaders and pervasive, rampant corruption. Yes, there are people across the continent who are trying to end these scourges, and glacial changes are happening in some places. But as often as not, when the reformers come to power they act much like those they replaced.
Zimbabwe can give us some idea of how it might have turned out. Like South Africa, what was then Rhodesia had a white ruling class that was determined not to surrender power to the black majority, and the whites (a much smaller percentage than in South Africa) held a privileged position in the largely agricultural economy. After the white regime lost all external support in the late 1970s (even South Africa’s apartheid regime gave up on Rhodesia), a negotiated transition led to the rise of Robert Mugabe as president. For many years Mugabe made Zimbabwe prosperous by cultivating the white agrarian elite while leaving the vast black majority largely in poverty. Perpetuating himself in power, he came eventually, in the last decade or two, to cementing his black support by turning on the white farmers. The white farmers were dispossessed and their land turned over to Mugabe’s black supporters. Commercial agriculture collapsed, and the Zimbabwe economy went with it. But Mugabe, now nearly 90, is still in power.
Mandela did several things that enabled South Africa to avoid Zimbabwe’s fate. First, he insisted on transparently honest elections leading to a multiparty polity, albeit with his ANC as by far the largest party. That let the white, coloured and black minorities establish their places in the new political order, and gave their politicians access to public office. He avoided establishing a winner-take-all polity like the one that evolved in Zimbabwe. And he made sure that these diverse minorities would have ample rights and liberties appropriate to a democracy, including the right to criticize the government.
Second, Mandela instituted the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which provided that those who had committed crimes and abuses under apartheid could come forward to tell their stories, be questioned, and then receive amnesty. This brought into the open the scope of the persecution that the former regime perpetrated, but did not fall into revenge, which would have created resentments and the potential for an ongoing cycle of tit-for-tat retaliation.
Third, Mandela’s example set the precedent that the president serves only one term. In a context where the ANC is likely to remain the governing party for as long as it avoids major internal splits, this means that no president will be allowed to accumulate power as Mugabe has done in Zimbabwe. At worst, South Africa will come to resemble Mexico under PRI dominance; by African standards, that’s not too bad. And it could be better than that.
Still, Mandela leaves a country with huge challenges, and a continent that seems determined not to follow his example. His collaboration with the white capitalist elite has made South Africa the economic powerhouse of Africa, but has left the vast majority in poverty. A black middle class is growing, but the end of apartheid has done little for the majority of South Africans. Some future leader will have to confront this challenge.
Meanwhile, most African countries languish in economic decay, pervasive corruption, and petty tyrannies. Where are the next Mandelas?