Mandela: Lessons to learn if we want to learn.

I originally wrote this article for ISIS Europe  but I thought I’d post it here as well. 


“Few events in recent history have been as much and as long anticipated as the death of Nelson Rolihlala Mandela, at the age of 95. Slumbering Microsoft Word files have been summoned from hard drives where they have lain unused for years, and special issues of newspapers and magazines prepared long in advance have been published, with the dates now filled in.

Among the thousands of commentaries, tributes, and attempts to claim Mandela for oneself, a fairly coherent (if highly inaccurate) picture emerges. Mandela is the charismatic man of peace, the visionary who eschewed violence and pursued reconciliation, the ethical role model, who overthrew a tyrannical regime by force of moral persuasion, helped by student protests in the United States. This isn’t entirely false, of course, but it’s a long way from being anything like entirely true, either.

In large part this narrative reflects the official apotheosis of Mandela that has taken place since the mid 1990s, when it became clear that the transition in South Africa was going to succeed, and that he would be President. Yet of course as late as the end of the 1980s, Mandela was a figure of fear and distrust in the West, a Communist terrorist bent on putting Africa to fire and sword. The Nationalist government of the day, reliably anti-communist, was tolerated, or even encouraged, by some European countries in its foreign wars and its domestic repression. The collective, pre-European Union, policy towards South Africa was not much more enlightened. But with a speed which would surprise only the incurably naïve, the public western presentation of Mandela changed almost overnight from that of an early draft of Osama Bin Laden to that of a reincarnation of Mahatmas K Ghandi. It is hard to say which was the more inaccurate.

Yet there are a number of lessons that can be learnt from Mandela’s life, and especially his handling of the transition that took place between 1990 and 1994, which might have a general application for the way in which the EU involves itself in crises in the future. Whether these lessons are learnable, of course, is another issue.

1. It helps to understand the problem. The problem in South Africa was systematically misunderstood by outsiders. Apartheid was (and still is) lazily characterised as all about racial segregation, and white domination over black. It was far more than that. Not only was the white community hopelessly split (the first act of the Nationalists in 1948 was to purge English speakers from all positions of power), but the non-white community came in various guises, of which blacks were only the largest, and was badly divided between different groups. Likewise, the opposition to apartheid was characterised as just being about civil rights for blacks, and interpreted then (and even more so now) as a derivative of the Civil Rights struggle in the United States, with Mandela playing the part of Martin Luther King. From Bosnia onwards, the EU has seldom displayed the political humility to take the trouble to recognise the true nature of crises it want to be involved in.

2. It helps to understand the actors.  As well as dismissing the ANC as fanatical terrorists, the international community completely failed to understand the Afrikaners, who anyway spoke a guttural language unknown elsewhere. But these were not recent immigrants, fighting to retain their swimming pools: they had been in the country three hundred years, and their Church, to which they were deeply attached, told them that God had given them this country to rule in perpetuity.  They were not going to give up easily, especially not to those they thought were monsters who would slaughter them in their beds. It is not clear that the EU has, institutionally, understood its interlocutors in recent crises any better.

3. Crises can’t be resolved until they are ready. As the EU was learning in Bosnia at about the same time, conflicts end when the leaders of the various groups believe that they have nothing more to gain from violence. Elements of the National Party and the security apparatus seem to have realised by the mid-1980s that the fight was unwinnable, but they could not have undone three hundred years of history and decades of anti-communist propaganda just like that, even had they wanted to. Persuading the larger Afrikaner community took years, and probably would not have happened at all without the end of the Cold War and the fall of the Soviet Union.. Likewise, it took some time for Mandela and his colleagues to convince others in the ANC that the deal on offer was the best they were going to get

4. Peace is not always the answer. The National Party could have withstood peaceful demonstrations and student sit-ins in principle forever. What tipped the balance was the increasing financial and human cost of the wars in Angola, and the bomb attacks, social unrest and mass violence in the country itself. By the end of the 1980s, some in positions of power had concluded that almost anything, even an accommodation with the ANC, was better than a continuation of the current chaos.

5. Outsiders find it hard to do good, and might well do harm. The white community in South Africa, and especially the Afrikaners, was the most isolated in the world, mostly by choice. Their leaders told them that they were the victims of an enormous Total Assault, masterminded from Moscow, and aimed at the destruction of the last outpost of Christian civilisation in Africa. Further attempts at isolating the country simply confirmed how all embracing this conspiracy was, and largely affected those whose support for the regime was only lukewarm anyway. Economic sanctions and disinvestment probably had some effect on the more enlightened Afrikaners, but little if any on the rank and file. Sometimes, the outside world can do little in practice, except make gestures.

6. Compromise does not always produce a workable solution. In South Africa in the 1980s, as earlier in Rhodesia, there were all kinds of suggested compromises on offer. If the crisis had been handled as is the norm today, the international community would have overseen some kind of limited recognition of non-white grievances, in return for “an end to the violence”. Avowed “moderates” like Chief Buthelezi, much more popular in the West than Mandela, would have been allowed into government, while Mandela and his colleagues would have been dismissed as “spoilers”. Heaven knows what level of violence and chaos that would have produced.

7. Don’t try to dictate settlements. The fact that the whole transition process was handled by South Africans themselves not only did much to ensure success, it also meant that outsiders could not put their finger on the scales, and so prevent the balance of power evolving naturally. The National Party’s original hope in 1990 had been to trade relatively trivial political concessions for the release of Mandela and the un-banning of the ANC and the Communist Party. But as time passed, and the situation deteriorated, power passed more and more into the hands of the ANC. This would not have happened had outsiders been involved.

8. Let the locals handle it, according to their culture and perspectives. The vision of the ANC was always, and is still, humanitarian and inclusive. This was reflected in their behaviour in the negotiations and after the transfer of power. Mandela has been rightly praised for his expression of this vision, but the policy also reflected a simple, cold, political calculation. The Afrikaners had nowhere else to go, and would have to be part of any solution. The effective monopoly of higher education by whites meant that those, mostly the English speakers, who might be tempted to leave would have to be induced to stay. The private sector was almost entirely in white hands. Other ethnic and political groups could, and perhaps would, have caused trouble if they had been excluded. This combination of idealism and pragmatism is one of Mandela’s greatest legacies, although it is not his alone.

9. Truth is difficult. Reconciliation may be impossible. Stop worrying. Mandela and the ANC leadership would have liked to put the leaders of the Apartheid regime on trial. Those same leaders hoped that mumbled regrets for any inconvenience caused would have been enough. The compromise – the Truth and Reconciliation Commission – was a political device to bridge the gap, and enable the legacy of the past to be addressed in a way that would not disturb the fragile stability of the country. In this it was successful, and deserves credit, even though most whites ignored the TRC, and most blacks thought it ignored their sufferings, since they it did not deal with Apartheid at all, but only individual crimes. The TRC was a necessary, even indispensable, political step, but it is not a model for other countries. And indeed, nearly twenty years afterwards, few would argue that “the truth” about Apartheid, whatever that may be, has been uncovered, and both opinion polls and personal experience suggest that there has been little “reconciliation”. Rather the South African experience suggests that people will learn to live together when they have no practical alternative, whether or not they actually like each other.

10. Heroes still exist in politics. Some, at least, of the adulation accorded to Mandela comes from western disappointment with the miserable standard of political leadership on offer in the West today. Mandela was of the same generation as the heroes of the Second World War and the reconstruction of Europe in the decades that followed, a generation whose final traces in Europe are even now being erased. Mandela is a reminder that heroes in politics are actually possible: not just himself, but a whole generation of brave individuals, black, white, coloured, Indian; even Bram Fischer, the brilliant Afrikaner lawyer who probably saved Mandela from the gallows in 1964. It’s natural to be nostalgic for such figures when our current generation of western politicians is much more likely to find themselves in prison on corruption charges than because they have challenged the power of the state.

Learning these lessons implies humility and patience, a willingness to be educated, a willingness to prefer facts to normative thinking and a willingness to hold back from interference until the time is right. Such lessons are not impossible for the EU to learn, but one wonders just how easy it would be for it to do so. The risk is that, like so many other things, the life of Nelson Mandela will simply be absorbed rapidly and painlessly, into a pre-existing Brussels narrative, with all the contradictions, difficulties and uncomfortable truths smoothed over. Then, we will have learned nothing from the life of a great man.



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