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.