Like Georgia, Nelson Mandela has been on my mind lately. Alright, truthfully, I think about him a lot all the time, as I’ve had a minor crush on him as far back as I can remember. My husband finds it quite amusing that he must compete with a 93-year old for my affections. In these times of political polarity in the United States, though, Nelson (I agree, it’s creepy that I think that we’re on a first-name basis) emerges in my daydreams most often for some of the things that he did as a nation builder in post-apartheid South Africa.
Let me start by saying that I have been to South Africa three times now, but have written very little about it. By far, the most important of my visits was from 1993 to 1994. Living in Johannesburg, I worked as an intern for a local non-profit called the Grasmere Community Development Trust. I was there from December through July. South Africa’s first fully-representative democratic election was in April, and Nelson was inaugurated as president in May (an inauguration which I attended). I was also an accredited election observer for South Africa’s electoral commission.
In the weeks leading up to the election, the country was in a very volatile state. Bombs were going off all over the place, including one at a polling station that was on the list of stations that my four-person observer team was to visit. I told my dad that it was fortuitous that it had been blown up before the election, as it was highly unlikely that it would get hit twice, right?
The other potential spoiler was the Inkatha Freedom Party’s (IFP) refusal to recognize the election. Its leader, Mangosuthu Buthelezi, joined at the very last minute, and I spent the early hours of the first polling day affixing IFP stickers to the bottom of the ballots.
The elections themselves were monumental: peaceful, joyful and historic. The entire country, and many others around the world, let out a gigantic, collective sigh of relief. And then the task of rebuilding a nation began.
Nelson Mandela walks the arena to greet supporters at an ANC rally.
Several years of multi-party negotiations had laid the groundwork for the 1994 elections, and one of the outcomes, an interim Constitution that was ratified in 1993, made it so that the election winner would need a two-thirds majority in order to rule as a single-party government. With 62.65 percent of the vote, Nelson had to form what was called a Government of National Unity. In other words, he had to invite his frenemies. F.W. de Klerk, of the previously-ruling, apartheid-era National Party (and with whom Nelson shared a Nobel Peace Prize), and the IFP’s Buthelezi became Nelson’s deputies.
The magic of this arrangement is that it worked. The government wasn’t rendered ineffectual. Buthelezi and de Klerk didn’t set about to bring Nelson’s administration down. They worked together, under Mandela’s leadership, to do what the country, and its people, needed at that time. Nelson co-opted his adversaries in the name of the greater good (which was to build a democratic state), and he did it successfully.
Then there was the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). Often discussed in contrast to the approach of the post-WW II Nuremberg Trials, the TRC was tasked with investigating human rights abuses, restoring victims’ dignity and reviewing applications for amnesty received from those who had committed abuses during the apartheid era.
Viewed by some as a politically-expedient move, and/or a failure of justice, I see the TRC as a brave and bold strategy that focused on reconciliation and healing rather than retribution as a step towards the new South Africa. Opinions on its success vary, but one thing is clear: the spirit that it cast over the nation during its two years of hearings left a very different imprint on the country than if the lion’s share of the focus had been on war crimes tribunals. I am not saying that criminal prosecution did not have a place. It wasn’t given center stage, though. The evil of decades past was not allowed to set the tone for the first chapters of post-apartheid South Africa.
The way things might have gone if reconciliation hadn’t been the focus.
Obviously, politics are a complicated lot, and politics in South Africa are especially so. No, Nelson wasn’t single-handedly responsible for the collaboration and reconciliation that figured so largely in his administration. He knows this, though, and has seemingly maintained his humility with regards to his role and the confluence of people and variables that changed his country. When being prepped in Oprah Winfrey’s green room in the late 1990s, he asked her, “What is the topic of today’s show?” Her response was, “Why, it’s you.” (Another reason I love him).
I will state here that I am fully aware that Nelson was the leader of the armed wing (Umkhonto we Sizwe) of his political party, the African National Congress, and had a hand in some nasty acts during apartheid. The difference to me, though, is the type of fight that he was fighting: his battle was to free an oppressed majority. The ‘other side’ did equally bad or worse things, in order to oppress said majority. It’s not apples to apples, at all. Nelson also spent 27 years in prison, and while some convictions and sentences may have been legitimate, some were clearly not. He paid a debt to society, and emerged a stronger leader than before, focused on where the country needed to go, not where he had just been.
With each year that Nelson adds, and with each political campaign that is run in the United States, the pit of despair in my stomach grows a little bit larger. I fear that Nelson Mandela, the man and his leadership, were an once-in-a-lifetime occurrence. No peace, no peace I find. Just this old, sweet song keeps Nelson on my mind.
Jo King-VonBargen says
What a great soul, Nelson Mandela! I do wonder what will happen when he's gone. I also wonder where America is headed, for many reasons. This is not the America I knew…and it seems to worsen daily. I almost don't want to put the news on anymore because the public discourse has gotten so polarized and blatantly mean-spirited I can barely stand to listen. We need a miracle! Great write here, Laura!
Laura Zera says
Thanks, Jo. I'm with you — it's getting harder and harder to watch the news. Somehow conversation and collaboration have fallen so far out of vogue, and the end result doesn't really serve anybody well. At this stage, it does feel like it will take a miracle!
Gavin Keith Forrester says
Great blog, Laura. Brings back some awesome memories and nostalgia for the crazy mix of hope, pride, fear and trepidation of those times in my land.
Unfortunately, I fear Nelson Mandela's vision for a united South Africa reached its zenith in the moments after the 1995 Rugby World Cup triumph. We seem to be on a slow inexorable slide into pettiness, tribalism, greed, corruption, arrogance and incompetence. (And Mandela is here in body alone)
Perhaps it is just chickens coming home to roost, if so I'm afraid there's not going to be much of a coop left for anyone.
However, hope springs eternal in this African breast and perhaps I live too close to the Bushveld (woods) to see the Baobab (trees).
Methinks it's time for you to return to offer a fresh perspective.
And thanks for caring.
Laura Zera says
Gavin, thank you for your thoughtful post! Of course, I'm sad to hear that the trail that Mandela started to blaze hasn't been sustained. It's really too bad that he was already in his elder years when he was elected and only served one term, and I have definitely read of the issues with his successors and some of the political hijinks. On a hopeful note, I read recently in The Economist that the overall crime rate has gone down in SA in the last decade. It cited 2003 as the peak. That, at least, is some goodness, as things were so out of hand in that respect. I was in SA again in 1997 and 2001, but you are right, I need a return visit, and a good long one at that. Maybe I'll time it to occur in the month before America's 2012 elections so that I don't have to watch the 'bitter end' of our campaign pettiness, tribalism, greed, corruption, arrogance and incompetence.
I accidentally stumbled upon your blog…very interesting read…except that it is 2 years later and things in SA is at a boiling point. We now have the highest rape statistic and sadly things have taken a turn for the worst when it comes to the crime and murder rate. The ANC has fallen under the holds of greed, corruption, intimidation and racism. you can call it apartheid in reverse. Whites are being murdered at an alarming rate, people are starving, infrastructure is falling apart…all while the government is filling their pockets with tax money. Top posts in major companies are given to blacks only (BEE), leaving all the minority groups with a loss of income. a few years ago we had near to 130 000 commercial farmers…now there is around 36 000 left. most left the country or gave up farming while other live in fear for vicious attacks, especially the elderly. Schools and hospitals are run down, teachers and medical practitioners spending more time at home than educating the youth or care to look after dying new born babies or deadly sick people ending up dead in hospital hallways…no one cares. The ANC can not keep their promises regarding sanitation and proper housing. People strike constantly and in the process, vandalize whatever they find in their path of destruction. Police cannot do anything, they stand there and look on as everything we work so hard for, are being destroyed. Foreign students are being raped at “safe” places like the table mountain national park. I would like to share more, but there is to much. The place and people you daydream about, forgot about their own people. Please come visit, maybe you can see what we offer from an unromantic perspective?
a proud (but ashamed) south african
Laura Zera says
Hello Anna, I very much appreciate your comment and the information, as much as it saddens me. I’m aware of these things, and they were plenty bad the times I’ve been in SA, too. The things you talk about were all in existence already when Mandela and the ANC took power in 1994. I lived in the Hillbrow neighborhood of Jo’burg and called the police on more than one occasion to report a rape in progress outside of my building after hearing a woman’s screams from my 7th floor window. I worked in the squatter camps where unreported rapes of children and young women had reached unfathomable rates. I watched someone die from a gunshot wound in my apartment building, and another person die because an ambulance wouldn’t come and get them from their location. So my perspective is not at all romantic.
What I was saying in this piece is that after decades of oppression, Mandela came into power with a focus on reconciliation, and that is a HUGE thing. Other governments in other countries have not taken the same path, instead focusing on retribution and imprisonment and paving the path for a civil war. I think I understand how you feel, watching all of these terrible things continue on in your country, things that affect you, your friends and family, but my opinion is that it’s the brutal reality of a societal transition after the majority had been marginalized for so long. The youth that for years were part of the fight for democracy didn’t know what to do with themselves once democracy was won — there weren’t jobs for them, they didn’t have a good education. The ‘freedom fighters’ became common criminals, and while it’s awful, it’s not surprising. And now, 20 years later, it goes on because poverty fuels criminal activity.
I agree with you, the ANC has not lived up to the hype. Mbeki had his faults, but Zuma is downright dastardly. South Africa does not currently have good government. I humbly request that you also hold this in balance with the situation pre-1994. I spent a great deal of time in Soweto and Alexandra, talking to people whose friends and family members mysteriously disappeared, or were not-so-mysteriously shot in their homes by members of the Internal Stability Units (which everyone there called the Internal Instability Units, based on the ISU’s efforts to drive wedges between tribal and political factions). South Africa has a dirty reality now because it has a dirty history. What I wonder most often, and have been wondering for 20 years, is how long it will take for things to come right. I’ve seen the potential of South Africa — it has so much more going for it than many of the other 17 African countries I’ve visited — and that’s what breaks my heart the most. You’ve chosen to stay in SA when so many others, including some of my friends, have left, and I sincerely hope that you see it get better in your lifetime.