Mandela decade a luminous one

February 14, 2000|By Ron Walters

I'VE HAD the pleasure of meeting former South African President Nelson Mandela on several occasions. One time, a few years ago, he jokingly asked me, Have you forgotten who I am? I responded by assuring him that neither I, nor most of the attentive people in the world, could do that.

This incident illustrated to me the humility that permitted him to emerge from prison -- 10 years ago last week -- with dignity. Here was a martyr of the South African liberation struggle holding the hand of his white jailer in a poignant sign of forgiveness, though Mr. Mandela was still a resolutely disciplined cadre of the African National Congress and still fundamentally opposed to apartheid.

With this entrance onto the world stage on Feb. 11, 1990, he won enormous respect.

Mr. Mandela was the kind of black leader who, in many places in the African Diaspora, people had been longing for since the days of Martin Luther King Jr., Guineas Amilcar Cabral and Ghanas Kwame Nkrumah. Here was a leader of African nationalism who could show the way to achieving racial equality.

Beyond race, Mr. Mandelas emergence captured the attention of global audiences, many of whom had been supportive of the South African freedom struggle. His presence reminded them of what constitutes the best elements in leadership. Mr. Mandelas greatness stems not just from his personal makeup but also from his experience as a revolutionary. This shielded him against the temptation to give the people less than his honest vision of the possibilities for change.

In 1995, after the first universal elections in South Africa, I was fearful that a gap could evolve between Mr. Mandela the symbol of the revolution and Mr. Mandela the politician. He could quickly become the brunt of criticism by those who were the victims of the racist oppression of apartheid. But despite the horrible situation of many South Africans, they appeared willing to give Nelson Mandela the benefit of the doubt and the time to try to rectify the past.

His government had the difficult twin tasks of reconciling racial interests while pursuing economic development. On one visit to South Africa in 1996, I was struck by Mr. Mandela's pragmatism, when in a speech to the South African Parliament, he seemed to reinterpret the role of government in the reconstruction process, suggesting that the private sector could accomplish various aspects of rebuilding more quickly and efficiently than could government. This new position meant compromising the socialist influences in the governing style of the ANC program in the hope of jump-starting the reconstruction plan.

Mr. Mandela's initial stance on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, set up to look into human-rights abuses during apartheid, was also a balancing act. While he supported the process, he felt the ANC cadre should be largely absolved from criminal charges, since the ANC was involved in a revolutionary process where mistakes were inevitable. Mr. Mandela thought that the moral weight of history should be against those who caused apartheid to come into existence, rather than to pretend there was an equivalent morality between the crimes of the ANC and those of the white minority apartheid regime.

Mr. Mandela could not operate as a normal politician. He had become the repository of the hopes of the people for change. By the end of his tenure, he had some concrete accomplishments to point to.

When he retired last year, he noted that whereas in 1994, 12 million people in the rural areas of South Africa lacked access to clean drinking water, by 1999 that figure had declined to 9 million; in 1994, two-thirds of South African households lacked electricity, which similarly had been reduced to only 36 percent last year.

For the future, he said the hope of the country would be based on the extent to which it was able to deal with such problems as the scourge of corruption, high levels of crime, and the monumental HIV/AIDS health crisis. Moreover, he said, South Africa had a vital role to play in regional economic stability and in the development of a more humane global economic system.

Mr. Mandela turned over the reins as head of state to his protege, Thabo Mbeki last June. Some of the benefit of the doubt Mr. Mandela created as a personal currency of leadership has transferred to Mr. Mbeki. How long this lasts depends on how it is utilized, but it is certain that ultimately Mr. Mbeki will have to create his own governing style, and offer his own vision of hope for the future, based upon his own concrete accomplishments. But whatever Mr. Mbeki does, the legacy of Nelson Mandela will not be in doubt. He redeemed the hope not only of Africans but of people the world over.

Ron Walters is a professor of government at the University of Maryland, College Park. Hes the author of Black Presidential Politics in America: A Strategic Approach (State University of New York Press, 1988).

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