Friday, December 6, 2013

Remembering Mandela

I think of this photo every time I go to an almost empty polling place to vote during most election years.  It shows people lining up to vote in South Africa in 1994 in that country's first fair and fully democratic election.  I remember watching a teevee reporter going on about people having to stand in line for hours in the hot sun and then she approached an old man in the line for an interview.  I don't think she got the answer she expected.  When asked how he felt about standing in line for hours in the hot sun to vote, the old man just beamed.  "I've waited all my life to vote," he said, "what are a few extra hours?"

I remember when we were all certain for many years that South Africa's apartheid regime would end in a bloodbath.  In the late 1980s, it looked like that expectation might come to pass as murderous violence, harsh repression, and dark prophecies of revenge dominated the news coming out of South Africa.  Steven Biko's death at the hands of police in 1977 was still a fresh memory.  Also still fresh in memory were the many deaths from police violence in the Soweto Uprising of June 1976.

That none of those dark prophecies of bloody apocalypse came to pass is entirely the work of Nelson Mandela.  By the end of the 1980s, the white Afrikaner regime that ruled South Africa was internationally isolated and losing its hold on a rapidly unraveling country.  The regime's last prime minister Frederick DeKlerk turned to the long imprisoned Nelson Mandela as a last resort.
Mandela declared from the start that he wished to create a united South Africa for all of its divided peoples.  Mandela was the one most responsible for the 1994 elections, and for seeing to it that they were fair and legitimate.  He was the primary force behind South Africa's new constitution, among the most democratic and inclusive in the world (and the first in history to explicitly write protections for gays and lesbians into the law of the land).  Nelson Mandela created the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that promised amnesty to the henchmen of the former regime in exchange for a full public accounting of their actions in the presence of their victims.  Justice may have been imperfectly done, but the lust for revenge was blunted.  The Truth and Reconciliation process in South Africa became a model for other countries making a similar transition from autocracy to constitutional democracy.

Finally, Nelson Mandela did the best thing any founder of a new country can do for his people, he voluntarily left office when his term was up.  He served only one term as president and then stepped down.  This was a stark contrast to his neighbor Robert Mugabe who squandered his charisma as a liberator by stubbornly clinging to power in Zimbabwe.

Nelson Mandela was that rarest of birds, a modern political leader who left behind a legacy of almost unalloyed good.   The legacies of most of the great transformational leaders of the 20th century are dubious at best from Mao Zedong to Margaret Thatcher.  So many politicians are fanatics of one kind or another, self-serving demagogues, profiteers, military tyrants, dynastic autocrats, or eager stooges for the international plutocracy.  More often than not, politicians are a necessary evil in a fallen world of over 200 countries (and countless tribes) who all hate each other's guts, whose leaders are all more or less corrupt, and who use their citizens' fear and loathing of outsiders to legitimize their hold on power.  Mandela showed us all that the "way of the world" need not be quite so inevitable.


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