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December 8, 2013

A Giant has fallen

Reuel S. Amdur

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Following Nelson Mandela's death we are being deluged by hagiography. Indeed there is much to praise, but better we should try to understand his role in history. To begin, it is clear that the festering sore of apartheid could not survive indefinitely, with a privileged white minority astride a much larger subjected black minority and growing international isolation. The seething unrest threw up Mandela as the leader and spokesman for the unrest, but had it not been Mandela it would have been others. In that sense, he was not indispensible. The anthropologist Leslie White, writing in the American Sociological Review back in 1947, expressed the matter eloquently.

“To explain profound political or social change by pointing to a Revolutionist is as naïve as it is futile. . . . Indeed, they seem to occur only during periods of revolutionary crisis—perhaps for the same reason that great rivers so frequently flow past great cities.”

Yet, that is not all that is to be said on Mandela’s influence on the historical changes that occurred in South Africa.  He was influenced by Mohandas Gandhi, whose passive resistance and satyagraha had their beginnings in South Africa.  It was to Gandhi’s tactic, and to some extent his philosophy, of nonviolence to which the African National Congress committed itself. 

However, in March, 1960, South African police at Sharpville fired into a crowd of 10,000 peaceful demonstrators, killing 69 and wounding 200.  Following that occurrence, a shaken government outlawed the ANC.  At that point, Mandela decided that nonviolence had no future in the battle against apartheid, and Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation) was born.  In fact, the results of the armed struggle were rather unremarkable overall, and it remains an open question as to whether continued nonviolent resistance would have proven effective as well over the long run. 

When the police at Sharpville opened fire, they did so in panic.  Hence, their behavior was an evidence of weakness in the face of nonviolence, not of strength.  Mandela said that nonviolence could only be successful when the other side plays by the same rules, but the British in India did not always adhere to Marquis of Queensbury rules and were on many occasions quite brutal in trying to crush the Quit India movement. 

It was the turn to violence that led to the capture, trial, conviction, and imprisonment of Mandela and his fellow conspirators.  The judge sentenced Mandela to life rather than death.  The apartheid government did not want to create a martyr.  In prison, he remained an icon of the movement.  As its leader, the government officials engaged in negotiations with him, trying to get him to accept limited concessions for his freedom.

The secret negotiations went on to no consequence till newly elected President and National Party leader F.W. de Klerk engaged openly with him and eventually gave in to the inevitable.  At the end, Mandela was even threatening to refuse his release unless de Klerk gave in!  De Klerk ended up by releasing Mandela and all his comrades and instituting universal suffrage.  He became vice-president when Mandela was elected as president.

I spoke earlier of the inevitability of change in the case of South Africa.  Mandela was not indispensible in bringing apartheid down, though he unquestionably played an important role in the process.  Yet, he played an essential role in how events unraveled following the end of apartheid.  His was the voice of reason and reconciliation rather than vengeance.  Had the rival Pan Africanist Congress prevailed instead, there would have been no Truth and Reconciliation Commission.  Instead there would likely have been a bloodbath.  It would not be difficult to find voices for violent revenge even within the ANC.

The end of apartheid was inevitable, the form that that would take, not.  Here we come to the role of the individual in pivotal change.  The philosopher Sidney Hook, in his book The Hero in History, looks at what role the individual may play.  He gave the example of Lenin’s role in toppling the Kerensky government in Russia as an example.  Without Lenin’s actions, history would have turned out differently.  Hook argued that there can be “heroes” in history, but he did not trust them.

One might question this example.  The Russian troops were restless and not wanting to continue fighting the Germans in World War I, and they were constantly losing battles.  They just might have revolted without Lenin.  Yet, Hook’s argument stands.  At pivotal moments, one person may be able to influence events in crucial ways.  In the case of Mandela, his important contribution was in his magnanimity in victory.  The Truth and Reconciliation Commission has been an influence even on events beyond South Africa.  In Canada it serves as a model for the government’s response, even inadequately, to the residential schools genocide. 

Some have criticized him for his support of people like Fidel Castro and Muammar Gaddafi.  Such support was reciprocal.  They were staunch supporters of the fight against apartheid while some of those criticizing Mandela on the issue were either silent or actively siding with the apartheid régime.  In the game of international politics one does not ordinarily spit in the faces of those giving you support.  On the issue of Palestine he was under no such constraint.  Israel was a close military ally of apartheid South Africa.  For Mandela, as he said, “Our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians.”

Mandela’s role in leading the campaign to eliminate apartheid was important.  In his leadership in the aftermath, it has been more than important.  Yet, there are things he left undone.

He backed away from basic economic change in South Africa, a change which along with many of his allies saw as essential.  Poverty in the country is widespread and economic inequality endemic.  Whites still largely people the economic heights, now sharing those heights with some blacks and other non-whites.  He shied away from dealing with that problem for a few reasons.  He feared that tackling it might foment anti-white violence.  He wanted the country to be open to international investment, and related to that point he was concerned about the impact that serious policies of redistribution might have on relationships to international financial institutions if trans-national corporations’ interests were touched.  That problem is left for others to address, not just in his country but internationally. 

Mandela’s contribution to African and world history is more than impressive as far as it went and as far as anyone can possibly expect.

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On July 7, 2024 in Toronto, Canada, Dimitri Lascaris delivered a speech on the right to resist oppression.

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