The announcement of Nelson Mandela's death was no surprise. At 95 years old and with the health problems he has been experiencing, he probably welcomed the release. For all in South Africa, this is a time to assess his legacy.
His life has been eventful. The militant political activist led the African National Congress into armed resistance to the apartheid regime, became possibly the world's longest serving political prisoner and certainly an icon of the struggle for freedom and, in victory showed a rare magnanimity. He did not just mouth fine words about reconciliation; he set an example of how to walk the difficult path to harmony among former enemies.
And he never forgot, as so many of Africa's nationalist leaders did forget, that national independence without personal freedom is worse than meaningless.
As a young man he made his name as a lawyer and a boxer. He defended many ANC members in court against political charges until he found himself in the dock. He must have known the risks he ran when he concluded that the ANC's fifty-year tradition of nonviolence was unlikely to overthrow apartheid. This decision led him to visit newly-independent African countries, especially those, like Algeria, which had won independence by armed struggle, to establish links with the more militant liberation movements which would help the ANC to form and train its own military wing, Umkontho weSizwe.
In prison, he held firm to his uncompromising confrontation with racist oppression but never forgot that his oppressors were as human and as worthy of respect as himself. His published diaries “Conversations with myself” show us a portrait of a man who could reach out to the humanity of his jailers. He records his reflections on the personal problems of some Afrikaaner warders and hsi attempts to establish a relationship with them – towards the end of the book, when he was president of free South Africa, he records a discussion with fellow former detainees about inviting some of their jailers to meet for a braai (barbecue; the favourite form of social gathering for almost all men in southern Africa); not only the ones who had learned to show some sympathy for their prisoners, but also not all. He reluctantly admitted that one notoriously sadistic warder would not appreciate or benefit from a friendly chat over roast meat and a few beers. But he admits this with sadness, almost as if it was his own failure.
His dedication to the struggle for his own people's freedom did not blind him to the sufferings and grievances of other peoples. The Afrikaaners had their own memories of oppression. Many of their forebears settled in South Africa to escape from persecution in Europe. More recently, the brutal treatment the British government meted out to Afrikaaner women and children in the concentration camps set up during the 1899-1902 Anglo-Boer war left a deep sense of resentment which drove the Afrikaaners to seek security in domination. My first encounter with this side of Boer self-awareness came on a bus in Pretoria on my first visit to South Africa in 1994. The white driver absolutely refused to speak or admit that he might understand English, but gave me my ticket with a smile when I remembered that the new South Africa has eleven official languages and switched from English to Setswana.
Madiba, as he is affectionately known, reflects in his diary on the strength of the Boer sense of identity and of their special history. His encounter with the Afrikaaner tribal consciousness led to his famous embracing of the 1995 Rugby World Cup as an oppotunity to affirm that they were, even though they had been led to seek security in apartheid, still one of the ethnic groups which found their home in South Africa and which had no other home.
This reaching out to embrace old enemies ensured peace in South Africa in the critical early years of democracy. We can forget now how frail a shoot that young democracy was in the early '90s. There were strong elements in the army and police who tried to provoke a violent backlash that would have stopped the 1994 elections and came very close to staging a coup against the democratically elected ANC government in the first years of his presidency.
Ensuring that peaceful transition to democracy was his unique achievement. The new South Africa could so easily, in less delicate hands, have collapsed into chaos and bloodshed and the consequences for the whole of southern Africa could have been catastrophic.
Some people claim that he did nomore than make people feel good and complain that the real problems of South Africa: gross economic inequality, ethnic divisions and antagonism, etc, remain. They forget that no one man can do everything; Madiba did what he could and made a very positive contribution. It is not fair to blame him for not doing more, when no other African leader achieved as much.