The two greatest moments of human liberation that I have been fortunate to experience are the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the election of Nelson Mandela. As a result, I have spent this week in the lonely position of one who admires both Nelson Mandela and Margaret Thatcher.
In the twentieth century, it was roughly speaking true that the democratic Right fought the tyrannies of the USSR, Red China, Cambodia and Cuba, while it was the democratic Left that opposed the South American juntas, the dictators in southern Europe, Jim Crow America and Apartheid South Africa. This division isn’t absolute — I was pleased to read that Thatcher, while opposing economic sanctions on South Africa, enforced arms and oil embargos and pressured Botha to release Mandela from prison. Nonetheless, it’s a rough guide to what each side preferred not to talk about.
These historic failures are at least to some extent understandable, if not excusable. Consider the case of Apartheid, and you can understand that there were those who knew it was evil, but feared that an ANC victory would lead to a Communist tyranny which would make Apartheid seem elysian in comparison. The reason I say that this is not excusable is that any risk of communist tyranny would have been reduced had the international right been on the right side of the struggle, and declared its aims as moral ideals.
That said, to err is human, and anyone who honestly admits that should be welcomed. By example, consider the US conservative David French: “When [Mandela] assumed power, I feared he would take South Africa down a blood-soaked path of despotism. I was profoundly, happily wrong. He was a great man who — through an incredible amount of graciousness and wisdom — accomplished a nearly impossible task. And lest we Americans look askance at South Africa’s many remaining imperfections, let’s not forget that we could not navigate out of profound, de jure racial discrimination without a ruinous civil war followed by a century of Jim Crow.”
The people who curl my lip are those who, after all this, still try and take the other side in a rather shady and sullen way. I have encountered a ripe slice of the US Right who seem to believe that Mandela’s record can be reduced to his political friendship with men like Arafat, Gaddafi and Castro, his youthful flirtation with Communism, and the armed campaign of Umkhonto we Sizwe (“Spear of the Nation”).
Taking that in reverse order, the armed campaign’s main fatalities occurred during the decades in which Mandela was imprisoned, and the armed campaign began in direct response to the banning and suppression of other avenues of protest, culminating in the Sharpesville massacre. Mandela is hardly the first to flirt with Communism in his youth, and had considerably more justification than, say, I. It is certainly true that Mandela’s political friendship with certain thugs and despots is a blot on his career, as indeed Thatcher’s friendship with Pinochet and her funding of what would become the Taliban through General Zia ul Haq was on hers. It is the tragedy of the 20th century that those committed to liberty found themselves making questionable alliances and often on opposite sides.
Yet, despite all this, to simply focus on these facts, which we should indeed acknowledge, and to evade the scale of what Mandela achieved, is, at best, highly suspect. Plenty has been written on that achievement, but I should like to focus on three aspects that do not get enough attention. The first is Mandela’s deep rationality, as the source of his famous forgiveness. His willingness to forgive and to find common ground surprised many, and certainly shocked some of his supporters, in particular in support for the Springboks (beautifully dramatised in Invictus), and in his appeal for unity after anti-Apartheid activist Chris Hani was murdered by a racist fanatic. It would have been entirely understandable for Mandela to have reacted other than he did. Yet he understood that, however understandable such a reaction might be, it would only lead South Africa towards ruin, to the failure of everything he accomplished.
The second is his decision, one of the first in his time in office, to have South Africa rejoin the commonwealth (from which it had been expelled, by a Tory government, for its official racism). Taking this in addition to India, the world’s largest democracy, gives the phrase “the English speaking peoples” a meaning that might have surprised Churchill but does the concept much credit.
Lastly, there is the matter that the overthrow of Apartheid was essentially a capitalist revolution. It is indeed true that Mandela established a generous welfare state, but he was only able to do so through a policy of economic liberalism that lead to an industrial boom. On a deeper level, however, the overthrow of enshrined racism almost by definition leads to a more capitalist society.
In South Africa’s War Against Capitalism, the US writer Walter Williams traces the genesis of the Apartheid movement to white labour unions that were as racist as they were socialist. This is a combination more common in history than many prefer to remember; while Germany’s National Socialists are the most famous example, at the beginning of the 20th century, there were numerous movements devoted to a whites-only socialism. The whole thrust of Apartheid’s colour bar was to restrict where blacks could find work and conversely to restrict whom businesses could and could not hire. Capitalism and racism are necessarily antagonistic; as Ayn Rand once had to explain to US conservatives, the foundation of capitalism is the principle of individual rights, that every person has the right to freely trade their work and the product of their work.
To reverse a particularly silly slogan, I have no troubles taking this political matter personally. For those who were not there, the atmosphere of South Africa under Mandela was hard to describe. As one who quickly tired of the childish hysteria surrounding Barack Obama’s election, I can say that this was something very different. This was hope founded on a rational conviction that this was a great turning point, nor merely for South Africa, but for the whole of Christian Africa — that the Rainbow Nation would become the model of success for the rest.
To say that the post-Mandela ANC did not live up to that moment is to say the least of it. What a descent. From Mandela donating a third of his salary to charity to Zuma’s multi-million-dollar palace at taxpayer’s expense. From the determination to deal justly with even the worst to the gunning down of striking miners.
Yet for those who opportunistically invoke this, this, there are a number of things that are worth noting. Firstly, it is not possible to be harsher on ANC misrule than South Africans are, in particular, those that fought against Apartheid. At Mandela’s funeral, Jacob Zuma faced a tide of boos from a crowd that had previously applauded even F.W. de Clerk. It is hard to imagine anything even remotely comparable in the old South Africa.
Moreover, as the Telegraph’s Tim Stanley points out, if one eschews the anecdotal, in numerous major measures, South Africa is improving. Poverty, corruption and crime rates are falling.
That such reforms are at all possible is in no small part due to the singular figure of Mandela. The single most important element in the ANC’s moral triumph was that it did not simply advocate any kind of “South Africa for the Blacks”, but understood that racialism itself was the problem. However, one has trouble imagining any other figure who could have translated that ideal into a reality as successfully, or to have said at his Rivonia trial:
I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal for which I hope to live for and to see realised. But, My Lord, if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.
Under the circumstances, to declare this stance is hard enough; to have been able to make it stick is incredible, yet this is what Mandela did throughout his time as president. Mandela’s words and legacy have, in a very real way, become to South Africa something like what the US Declaration of Independence is to Americans: a statement of moral aspiration to which can be appealed when the current state does not live up to it.
I also think it creates an important opportunity for those of us on the Right. Embracing this portion of Mandela’s legacy is an excellent way to flush out the idiots of that minority who are not still not reconciled to the fact that racialism and pettiness and small mindedness, quite apart from their moral implications, just do not work. They didn’t exactly work well throughout history, and in a time of global communications and easy travel, they are especially useless. It is also an opportunity to make new friends; expressing myself forcefully on this point, I was pleasantly surprised to find defenders of capitalism writing to me from as far away as Nigeria and South Africa.
One doesn’t wish to get too drippy, and hagiography tends to betray its object. Projecting an ethereal ideal is a way of evading responsibility, as when virtue becomes the province of the perfect, the rest of us who are rather less than perfect are relieved of the hope of effectiveness. At the end of Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela writes that he had no desires beyond those of an ordinary man who wanted to earn his living and raise a family. Mandela most certainly had his flaws and mistakes, but in many ways those are encouraging. As Sir Edmund Hillary once remarked, “You don’t need to be some great hero to do amazing things-to compete. You can just be an ordinary chap, sufficiently motivated.”