Foreign Policy Blogs

On Mandela

Frederik de Klerk and Nelson Mandela shake hands at the Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum held in Davos in January 1992. Photo Credit: World Economic Forum

Frederik de Klerk and Nelson Mandela shake hands at the Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum held in Davos in January 1992. Photo Credit: World Economic Forum

The news hanging over the last month or so has been Nelson Mandela’s health. He has been in hospital in Pretoria for several weeks now, with conflicting reports on his condition. It seems that he is critical but stable, he may or may not be on life support, and he may or may not be showing signs of improvement. Either way, his family definitely is not handling Madiba’s plight with grace or dignity. The family’s very public infighting, emphasizing disputes over who is entitled to make final decisions, who speaks for the family, and who gets the role of leadership, has been daily front-page news. We know more about the ongoing Mandela family soapie than we do about the health of Nelson Mandela.

But what will happen when Mandela goes? My guess? Nothing. Oh, sure, there will be deserved fulsome praise and ubiquitous memorials and warm tributes. South Africans will be sad, profoundly so. But the country is not going to change profoundly. There will be crass aspects to these tributes — people trying to make a buck, or to enhance their own prestige, or to politicize Mandela’s death by staking claims to his legacy. But those members of the media who think that riots and violence are going to break out upon Mandela’s death — and I met a couple of these people the other night — are bound to be disappointed. Mandela bequeathed his country many great legacies. None of these is greater than that he stepped down from office after one term, enabling successors of varying quality and integrity to carry forward and to guarantee that South Africa would not succumb to the sort of one-man rule that has plagued other states in the region.

Yes, the ANC, a party to which Mandela’s loyalty never wavered, looks to maintain its dominance for the foreseeable future, and horizonless one-party rule is itself potentially problematic. But one-party role is not the same as Big Man rule, and while the ANC is firmly in control, it is firmly in control because for all of its flaws it maintains the faith of a majority of South Africans. This is in no small part due to Mandela. And I do fear that the ANC is going to wrap itself so tightly in Mandela’s image in the near future that it will approach demagoguery. Indeed, I suspect that the country’s next elections are likely to see the ANC using more images of Mandela than Jacob Zuma. And why not? Mandela, after all, is universally loved and respected. Zuma? Not so much.

Will these attempts to utilize Mandela’s image be offensive? Maybe. But they should not be at all surprising. This is just the nature of politics today not only in South Africa, but virtually everywhere. Expecting the ANC not to remind people at all turns that it is the party of Mandela requires a level of naïveté that is almost quaint.

Nelson Mandela is a great man and a good man. He was the leader South Africa needed in the 1990s, and he was wise enough to know that he was not the leader the country needed in the 2000s even if he was the leader they wanted. His passing will represent a sad day, but not a tragic one, as his legacy is secure. Mandela is certainly not a perfect man, and he was not a perfect president. But there is plenty of time ahead for clear-eyed assessments of the man and his meaning. For now we can only hope that he is not in pain and that when he goes, he goes peacefully. Hamba kahle, Madiba. Hamba kahle.



Derek Catsam

Derek Catsam is a Professor of history and Kathlyn Cosper Dunagan Professor in the Humanities at the University of Texas of the Permian Basin. He is also Senior Research Associate at Rhodes University. Derek writes about race and politics in the United States and Africa, sports, and terrorism. He is currently working on books on bus boycotts in the United States and South Africa in the 1940s and 1950s and on the 1981 South African Springbok rugby team's tour to the US. He is the author of three books, dozens of scholarly articles and reviews, and has published widely on current affairs in African, American, and European publications. He has lived, worked, and travelled extensively throughout southern Africa. He writes about politics, sports, travel, pop culture, and just about anything else that comes to mind.

Areas of Focus:
Africa; Zimbabwe; South Africa; Apartheid