Few of us who observed international politics in the 1960s and 70s, even the most optimistic, ever thought that we would see the end of apartheid, much less the transition to democratic majority rule in South Africa.
That it happened at all is in no small measure due to Nelson Mandela, whose passing yesterday is being greeted with well-deserved reverence around the world.
That it happened peacefully must be credited almost entirely to him and to his reluctant but nonetheless courageous negotiating partner, F.W. DeKlerk, the last white prime minister of South Africa.
But perhaps the greatest achievement is almost entirely Mandela’s: that South Africa was able to avoid the decline into tyranny and poverty that have been the fate of Zimbabwe.
The courage and equanimity with which Mandela endured 27 long years in prison, without allowing hatred to consume his soul, have elevated him to a kind of secular sainthood, although Mandela himself would be the first to disclaim sainthood. In one of the most moving parts of his autobiography, he writes of his failure to fulfill his family obligations because of the irreconcilable conflict between his obligations to his family and his obligations to his country and his people: “It was as simple and yet as incomprehensible as the moment a small child asks her father, ‘Why can you not be with us?’ And the father must utter the terrible words: ‘There are other children like you, a great many of them…’ and then one’s voice trails off.”
His second great achievement was the skill with which he negotiated with DeKlerk, over four difficult years, the transition to black majority rule.
As head of the World Bank, I was privileged once to have a private meeting with Mandela. The overwhelming impression was of a man who virtually radiated serenity, enormously confident and comfortable with himself but genuinely interested in his interlocutors. No doubt that quality served him well in negotiations, but he would not have succeeded if there had not been steel underneath that calm surface. He had the critical combination of strength and flexibility that are the marks, not of sainthood, but of successful diplomacy.
Some share of the credit for that great achievement must also go to DeKlerk, with whom Mandela later shared the Nobel Peace Prize. But Mandela’s most extraordinary achievement, and one for which he alone was personally responsible, was the remarkable degree of reconciliation that he was able to achieve across the deep divide of racial hostility.
At his inauguration as president in 1994, he pledged, “to liberate all our people from the continuing bondage of poverty, deprivation, suffering, gender, and other discrimination. Never, never, and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another.”
And he made it clear by his actions that he meant all races, not just the blacks. He established Truth and Reconciliation Commissions to balance the need justice for the crimes of the old regime with the need to avoid creating new grievances that could become obstacles to the country’s future.
Even more creative was the act of personal diplomacy (and political theater) in reaching out to South Africa’s all-white rugby team, the Springboks. A symbol of white and particularly Afrikaaner pride, they were accordingly reviled by the black majority. Mandela not only got the international ban on them lifted but he brought the Rugby World Cup to South Africa in 1995 and – in a remarkable gesture, which is dramatically reenacted by Morgan Freeman in the very accurate movie, Invictus – Mandela walked out onto the field before the finals between the Springboks and New Zealand wearing a Springboks jersey. The mostly white crowd went wild and it was then that Mandela’s former prison mate on Robben Island, Tokyo Sexwale, said: “I understood more clearly than ever before that the liberation struggle was not so much about liberating blacks from bondage, it was about liberating white people from fear.”
But the achievement of that reconciliation is still incomplete; if the dividing line is no longer entirely racial, it is still a deep divide between what are practically two separate countries living side-by-side, the rich and the poor. While the rich are no longer entirely white, the poor are virtually all black, and that divide contains the ingredients of a potential explosion or an opportunity for a demagogue to exploit.
At the conclusion of his remarkable autobiography, “Long Walk To Freedom,” Mandela writes:
When I walked out of prison, that was my mission, to liberate the oppressed and the oppressor both. .. . . I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. . . I dare not linger, for my long walk is not yet ended.
Mandela’s walk has now ended, but his country is still left with great challenges. For the sake of South Africa, but also for the rest of the world and particularly for the other countries of Africa who have benefited so much from South Africa’s renaissance, one must hope that Mandela’s example can inspire his successors, even now that he is no longer able to do so personally.