Topic: Decline of the West
The death of Nelson Mandela came as no surprise: He was 95, had been ailing for some time and had not been seen in public since 2010. Nonetheless it was something of a shock. Mandela, the liberator of South Africa, was not only a heroic symbol but a man of mark. To the manner in which he fought and vanquished the great evil of apartheid is mainly due the orderly establishment in his country of a functioning, multiracial democratic polity.
Mandela’s achievement in this regard ought not to be taken for granted. In the period of transition from apartheid (1990-94), race-based anger and hatred repeatedly boiled over into violence. Civil war—leading, perhaps, to the breakup of South Africa—was a real possibility. The poverty, inequality, economic stagnation and crime that continue to trouble the country today recall that the odds did not necessarily favor a peaceful end to white minority rule. But Nelson Mandela’s great prestige, his determination to carry on the fight against apartheid firmly but without bitterness, prevented the very worst from happening.
It helped that he had a reliable partner. The last white-minority president of South Africa, F.W. de Klerk, was the man who signed apartheid’s death warrant. Recognizing that his country could no longer go on in isolation as a racist state, he set in motion the train of events that culminated in the landmark election of 1994. But without Mandela, it seems doubtful that de Klerk could have contrived a peaceful transition from apartheid to democracy. The knowledge that Mandela himself would lead the first post-apartheid government did a great deal to reconcile all South Africans to the settlement reached between de Klerk’s government and the African National Congress.
Nelson Mandela had his flaws. Accepting support for his cause from whatever source offered, in return he lavished praise on the totalitarian USSR, the anti-Semitic Palestine Liberation Organization and an assortment of tyrants including the late Muammar Gaddafi. He was no great friend of the United States. Mandela’s statements in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, revealed little sympathy for America and in 2002 he went so far as to declare that the US was a threat to world peace. Politically, he might best be described as a democratic socialist: a man with scant understanding of or sympathy for free-market economics.
But the totality of his life and work overshadows Mandela’s inevitable human and political shortcomings. And paradoxically perhaps, considering his progressive politics, it seems to me that the conservative imagination is best situated to appreciate his historical significance. There exists a widespread, complacent tendency to suppose that since things went well, they could only have gone well. But conservatives understand that history is not biased in favor of peace, harmony or justice. So here is one measure of Nelson Mandela’s great merit: Think what might have happened to South Africa if he had been less like India’s Mahatma Gandhi and more like Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe.
Nelson Mandela was without doubt a great man. And now that he has passed from the scene we may say of him, as Shakespeare made Antony say of Brutus: