Mandela legacy is an intact nation

August 05, 1999|By Paul Salopek

JOHANNESBURG -- Nelson Mandela earned a tribute recently that no doubt made him smile, and probably for the right reasons, too, because he knew it to be true.

Olusegun Obasanjo, a blunt-talking, fireplug of a man who is Nigeria's first democratically elected president in 15 years, was making a speech to delegates at the Organization of African Unity summit in Algiers a few weeks ago, when he paused to pay tribute to South Africa's beloved leader, now retired.

He said lots of nice things. Most of the continent's 45 heads of state gathered at the meeting did, too. But the words that stick, that carry the lasting heft of irony are these: Mr. Mandela would be treasured, Mr. Obasanjo intoned, for "his glorious exit from power."

Forget the obvious jab at all the African leaders who failed to relinquish power before they were required to do so.

Mr. Obasanjo was telling a sly, honest joke: The man who brought apartheid to heel, and who handed the jewel of South Africa back to the world, will be best remembered for his grand and mysterious absences.

Turning the other cheek

Like the absence of despair in a body stiffened for 27 years under the 24-hour glare of a bare light bulb hanging in a 6-by-9 concrete cell. Or the absence of bitterness that, almost everybody concedes, saved his wounded country from spinning into a bloody civil war in the early 1990s. Mr. Mandela, the son of Xhosa royalty, gave South Africa the regal silences it needed to heal. He let things go. He left.

On his 81st birthday last month, he spent the day quietly at home with his family. Michael Jackson stopped by with a cake. A few three-paragraph "good wishes" popped up below the fold of the newspapers.

Otherwise, out of office for barely six weeks now, it is becoming difficult to discern the old man's fingerprints on the new South Africa he helped create, so light was his touch.

"It's amazing how fast he's passing into legend," said Alf Stadler, a political scientist at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.

"His power was in intangibles. I can't think of a single concrete, structural part of our government that bears his imprint. Not the courts, not the presidency, not parliament.

"He's like Churchill. There'll be a huge memorabilia business when he's gone, but others will shape the way we actually govern ourselves." But it is those very intangibles, the ones straight-talking Mr. Obasanjo detected, that arc across all racial lines and, even today strap together his fractious young democracy.

Few others, maybe no others, could use the art of empathy to detoxify a country staggering under so heavy a burden -- nearly 50 years -- of ingrained racist policy.

Richard Calland, an expert on government policy at the Institute for Democracy in South Africa, observes some kinship to Ronald Reagan in style and magnetism.

But Mr. Mandela's gift is deeper, if only because of the infinitely wider chasms of anger and pure, in-the-marrow hatred he had to overcome because of the melanin in his skin.

Many Americans dislike Mr. Reagan intensely. Mr. Mandela gave speeches to deeply embittered, rock-ribbed Afrikaner town councils, and yet he could leave them standing, reassured, clapping like mad.

The famous Mandela charm isn't infallible, of course: It couldn't overcome the rift with fellow Nobel Peace Prize winner F.W. DeKlerk, the last white South African president who angrily quit Mr. Mandela's government of national unity.

Political issues

Nor has Mr. Mandela's political judgment always been beyond reproach.

"His is the last generation of the old street-corner politicians, the guys who came up through the apartheid crackdowns of 1940s and 1950s, so loyalty to friends means a lot," said Mr. Stadler.

"That hurt him because he kept people in his Cabinet who weren't capable, or worse, and his reputation suffered."

Recently, he lashed out at South Africa's feisty media, and he famously grumbled last fall that the country's opposition parties were "Mickey Mouse" and "not necessary." As for South Africa's terrible crime rate, he has, in his harder moments, occasionally told complaining whites to toughen up.

Yet, despite such impetuous lapses, the Mandela intangibles still prevail.

He was able to parlay his magic into muscle, for probably one last time, earlier this summer. He talked Muammar el Kadafi, an old friend, into surrendering the terrorism suspects linked to the 1988 bombing of a passenger jetliner over Lockerbie, Scotland.

That charisma will be exercised mostly privately now, reserved for his children and grandchildren.

Paul Salopek is Africa correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, in which this first appeared.

Pub Date: 8/05/99

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