Nelson Mandela, 1918-2013

My grandfather grew up in South Africa, son of a Dutch coal miner. A member of the first graduating class from Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg, he moved to Europe in the 1920s and on to the U. S. in the 1930s, where he became a citizen and lived the rest of his life.

For decades, my grandfather was one of the most prominent academic critics of apartheid, South Africa’s policy of racial separation, begun in 1948. According to family legend, in the early 1960s he was offered the position of Chancellor of Witswatersrand. He flew to Johannesburg, where the police boarded the plane. They told him that, because of his anti-apartheid activities, he would be arrested and imprisoned if he debarked. He stayed on the plane, flew back to the United States, and never set foot in South Africa again.

He died in the early 1980s. That was the era of anti-apartheid agitation on college campuses, with students demanding that endowments divest holdings in any company doing business in South Africa. After my grandfather’s death, my grandmother funded a scholarship in his name at the University of Rochester, where he had been President and where my sister was then a student. The award paid for a black South African student to be educated at Rochester.  

I took my grandmother to visit the University of Rochester, for a dinner welcoming the first recipient of the Cornelis de Kiewiet Scholarship . The speaker was a professor from a nearby state university, an African, who called for violent revolution in South Africa: “This is no longer a time for talking. It is a time for cutting throats.” The African-American students in the audience were clearly on board for the throat-cutting, though the actual African student was not. He came up to us afterwards, thanked my grandmother most politely, and assured us that he was opposed to violence.

I had trouble making small talk with the speaker at the cocktail party that followed the speech: “I want to murder your uncles and second cousins. Have you tried the crab dip?”

Which brings me to Nelson Mandela. Unlike my grandfather, who left Jo’burg and flew back to a safe, boring and prosperous retirement in the countryside outside Washington DC, Mandela, a member of the African National Congress since 1944, spend 27 years doing hard time on Robben Island and in other South African prisons. 

He was finally released in 1990. Shortly afterwards, Mandela went on a world tour, and was greeted by ecstatic crowds everywhere, including over two million in New York City. At the time, I was not a Mandela fan. The Soviet Union had been gone for only a year, and I still saw international issues mostly through an East-West lens. Mandela’s African National Congress was loaded with Communists (still is), and its fighters had been trained by the East Germans. Not my cup of tea.

I was wrong about Mandela, as subsequent events demonstrated.

Mandela was elected President of the ANC in 1991, and reached agreement with President F. W. de Klerk in 1993 to end apartheid and transform the Republic of South Africa into a multi-racial democracy. He shared the Nobel Peace Prize with de Klerk in 1993, and was elected the first President of a free South Africa in 1994.

In his youth, Mandela was a tough, smart, and angry man. Despairing of a peaceful solution to apartheid, he supported the ANC’s move to violent resistance in the 1960s. Imprisoned for decades, he had every excuse to be bitter, and could have found plenty of support among his followers, especially the Communist and Youth League elements of the ANC, for a policy of revenge. Many white South Africans, including most of my own Afrikaner relatives, expected South Africa to suffer the fate of so much of post-colonial Africa, where the pattern was one man, one vote, one time. 

Mandela could have made decisions strictly in favor of his own tribe or race, yet he did not. After winning the Presidency, he reached out to the white minority, including whites in his government and inspiring the Springboks, South Africa’s national rugby team, to a victory in the 1995 Rugby World Cup. True to his word, Mandela served only one term, and left the Presidency to an elected successor. Unlike other African leaders, he did not leave office a wealthy man. He returned to his small house in the Soweto neighborhood of Johannesburg, where he died last week.

The reason the world mourns Mandela is that he was an example of a style of leadership that is no longer in fashion. He believed in a public interest beyond the parochial interests of race or class. He inspired his nation’s citizens, of all races, to a belief in a common, shared future. His personal display of humility, probity and political self-abnegation echoed that of our own nation’s first and greatest President, George Washington.

From being the economic success story of sub-Saharan Africa from the 1990s through the early years of the new century, South African growth has slowed dramatically in recent years, losing momentum due to corruption and incompetence. Mandela’s legacy is at risk, but the man’s achievement remains historic.

Nelson Mandela R.I.P.

8 thoughts on “Nelson Mandela, 1918-2013

  1. Thx, Jim, for the history lesson. And I wanted you to know that I have your grandfather’s book on my desk. Last year I found a copy for Ruth and a copy for us.


    • Charlie,

      Glad you have that. For readers who might be interested, the book we’re referencing is The Anatomy of South African Misery, by Cornelis de Kiewiet, which is a collection of his speeches on apartheid, given mostly in the 1950s. My grandfather believed that, because the South African government refused to speak to the reasonable opponents of apartheid, they would ultimately have to deal with only the radical and violent, because they would be all that was left. (There is a historical phrase here that escapes me.) The fact that in the end apartheid passed away peacefully is due, in a sense genuinely unusual in history, to a single man — Nelson Mandela.


  2. Leaders like Mandela and Gandhi and King, who choose peace over violence, recognizing the humanity in those who did not recognize the humanity in them are a great inspiration to me. If the blacks could live peacefully with the whites in South Africa, perhaps there is hope for the red and blue states in America. Surely neither Obamacare nor bans on partial-birth abortions should be harder to accept in those we disagree with than was apartheid for the Africans.


    • It is an interesting question, exactly how the Mandela example translates to American politics. I think not for abortion — both sides of that debate see it as about the essence of personhood, and both sides could draw an analogy between the recognition of the full personhood of South Africa’s blacks, Asians and coloreds to the situation of that humanity they feel unrecognized or at risk in America — that of the fetus, for pro-lifers, that of a woman denied absolute and unconditional control of her body, for feminists.

      I think the analogy to South Africa that might apply to Obamacare is the argument that access to medical care, without any reference to ability to pay, is a fundamental human right, denied to a shocking number of Americans under the status quo prior to ACA. This seems to me a better argument for single-payer than for the Affordable Care Act. The latter leaves huge numbers without insurance, while deliberately advantaging some and disadvantaging others among those insured. Personally, I have never bought the argument that positive rights (to outcomes like income equality, medical care, affordable housing or cellphones) are “rights” in the same sense as negative rights (liberty, property, speech, political representation).

      The broad lesson from Mandela, and from Gandhi, King, the Dalai Lama, and perhaps a limited group of others, seems to me to be the potentially transformative power of recognizing the essential humanity of your political opponents, even to the point of loving them. Whose political practice in the U.S. falls into this category? I’m at a loss.


      • On reflection, I think it is hard to apply lessons of non-violent leaders like King and Mandela and Gandhi to the US because our internal politics are currently non-violent. And one of the things I wish we did not do in our domestic politics is demonize the enemies, and I implicitly did that when I suggested our own evils might be comparable to apartheid or segregation or colonization. Remarkably, we are still a nation of laws, duking it out verbally. More polarized at the moment than we might have been a few decades ago, but still expressing that polarization without so much as a riot or a violent protest, much to our credit in my opinion.

        So tea party and occupiers, whatever else I might think of you, hats off to both of you for this.


      • Keep in mind that King was one of the greatest Americans. He transformed the country by holding a mirror up to the nation, and challenging us to live up to our own founding ideals. He was a victim of a kind of violence far more common in the U. S. than in most other Western democracies, murder by firearm.

        As to being a nation of laws, I’m unhappy with recent trends, and may post a blog about that at some point.


  3. Jim
    Very interesting, especially your family involvement in history.
    However, his home was not small or in Soweto. I saw his home. Very large, surrounded by a 12 foot wall, with armed guards in a very prestigest neighborhood. However, he deserved it.


    • You are right. I was confusing his former home, now a museum, which is in Soweto, with his more recent residence, in Houghton, a wealthy area.

      The walls and security are pretty much everywhere in South Africa. We’ve stayed three times with South African friends in a Johannesburg suburb called Craighall. Their house has ten foot walls all around. The neighborhood is protected by private security patrols. They have an alarm system with multiple keypads, including a panic button on the wall above their bed. If they hit it, the armed response is supposed to be there in two minutes.



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