How will history judge Nelson Mandela?

Last updated 08:11 10/12/2013
Nelson Mandela

PAYING TRIBUTE: Nelson Mandela has been mourned across the globe.

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Chris Trotter

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OPINION: As Abraham Lincoln breathed his last in a fetid boarding house across the street from Ford's Theatre, his friend, the Secretary of War, Edward Stanton, declared: "Now he belongs to the ages."

President Barack Obama borrowed Stanton's magnificent epitaph to honour the passing of Nelson Mandela - the man who, throughout Obama's political career, had served as the living exemplar of political heroism.

The American president is merely the mightiest of world leaders to pay tribute to this remarkable man. The fortitude he demonstrated through 27 long years of imprisonment, and the readiness with which he forgave his former enemies, greatly eased South Africa's transition from racial oppression to multi-racial democracy, and made Nelson Mandela a statesman for all seasons.

But how will the ages, to which President Obama has now dispatched him, judge Nelson Mandela?

The apartheid-era judges who sentenced Mandela to life imprisonment on that tiny speck of offshore rock called Robben Island knew what they were doing. Martyrs are politically useful only to their own side, but an imprisoned leader may one day be of service to both. This is especially true when, as the duration of his captivity lengthens, that leader's reputation, unblemished by the inevitable compromises and crimes of politics and war, is permitted to grow to almost mythic proportions.

Hundreds of anti-apartheid fighters (most infamously Steve Biko) were murdered in police custody. Why Nelson Mandela did not share their fate is one of those important political questions that contemporaries consistently deemed it better not to ask.

But we may be sure that, alone in his cell on Robben Island, Prisoner 46664 asked himself: "Why am I still alive? Why haven't they killed me? What role do the whites expect me to play in South Africa's future?"

The answer, of course, and if you'll pardon the rather cruel pun, is that Nelson Mandela was the apartheid regime's "Get Out of Jail Free" card. If repression failed; if the opportunity to preserve the property of white South Africans - even at the expense of surrendering their political dominance - presented itself; then Prisoner 46664, beloved by his people, the world's most celebrated political prisoner, would be there to avert the fire and the blood that a Just Providence held in store for the architects and beneficiaries of the hated apartheid system.

But Mandela was not white South Africa's only saviour.

In the early 1980s the prospect of a Soviet-backed African National Congress replicating the triumphant national liberation struggles of Angola, Mozambique and Namibia seemed plausible. With a continent-wide front of socialist enemies to the north and their backs to the sea, white South Africa's future looked bleak.

By the end of the 1980s, however, Soviet power was collapsing. In 1991, its European empire gone, and its world-wide network of national liberation regimes scrabbling for more reliable sponsors, the Soviet Union, itself, simply blipped-off history's screen. And with it went any chance of securing black majority-rule in South Africa by outside force. Democracy would arrive there in one of only two possible ways: either blood-soaked and fatally compromised by a racial holocaust of historic proportions; or peacefully, via the ballot-box.

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The white leaders of South Africa, understandably, opted for the latter. In February 1990, shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the last white president of South Africa, F W de Klerk, authorised the release of Prisoner 46664. Nelson Mandela got out of jail.

But he was not free. Like Abraham Lincoln, to whom he is so often compared, Mandela found himself caught up in political and economic currents beyond his control and in whose grip he struggled to keep the frail craft of South Africa's hopes afloat. If he was not to bequeath his people an economy stripped of all essential expertise, materiel and capital, then the socialist elements of the ANC programme would have to be abandoned.

It was no accident that Mandela's new offices were located in Shell House. Without the endorsement of transnational capital, South African democracy would be a poor and ragged thing. But Mandela's parallel guarantee to protect the farms and businesses of the hated Afrikaners also meant that the poor and the ragged of South Africa would remain black.

Will the ages welcome Nelson Mandela with the same solemnity that they received Abraham Lincoln? Surely the avoidance of a racial bloodbath and the likely fracturing of South Africa along tribal lines - not to mention the introduction of a working multiracial democracy - is a legacy worthy of posterity's approbation? It has certainly merited the applause of the present day.

And yet, in the story of Nelson Mandela there remains a nagging sense of saintliness too readily and too easily bestowed. Great victories are not won except at great price. Abraham Lincoln paid for his at Ford's Theatre. Nelson Mandela died in his bed.

- © Fairfax NZ News


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