Nelson Mandela Dies At 95
The most important leader to come out of Africa in the 20th Century, and perhaps in all of history, has died.
Nelson Mandela, a South African political prisoner who became the symbol of the fight against that nation’s apartheid regime as he remained imprisoned under harsh conditions for decades who later became President of his nation and a symbol of national reconciliation that likely saved South Africa from the fate that has befallen many nations on that continent, has died after a long illness at the age of 95:
Nelson Mandela, who led the emancipation of South Africa from white minority rule and served as his country’s first black president, becoming an international emblem of dignity and forbearance, died Thursday. He was 95.
The South African president, Jacob Zuma, announced Mr. Mandela’s death.
Mr. Mandela had long declared he wanted a quiet exit, but the time he spent in a Pretoria hospital in recent months was a clamor of quarreling family, hungry news media, spotlight-seeking politicians and a national outpouring of affection and loss. The vigil even eclipsed a recent visit by President Obama, who paid homage to Mr. Mandela but decided not to intrude on the privacy of a dying man he considered his hero.
Mr. Mandela will be buried, according to his wishes, in the village of Qunu, where he grew up. The exhumed remains of three of his children were reinterred there in early July under a court order, resolving a family squabble that had played out in the news media.
Mr. Mandela’s quest for freedom took him from the court of tribal royalty to the liberation underground to a prison rock quarry to the presidential suite of Africa’s richest country. And then, when his first term of office was up, unlike so many of the successful revolutionaries he regarded as kindred spirits, he declined a second term and cheerfully handed over power to an elected successor, the country still gnawed by crime, poverty, corruption and disease but a democracy, respected in the world and remarkably at peace.
The question most often asked about Mr. Mandela was how, after whites had systematically humiliated his people, tortured and murdered many of his friends, and cast him into prison for 27 years, he could be so evidently free of spite.
The government he formed when he finally won the chance was an improbable fusion of races and beliefs, including many of his former oppressors. When he became president, he invited one of his white wardens to the inauguration. Mr. Mandela overcame a personal mistrust bordering on loathing to share both power and a Nobel Peace Prize with the white president who preceded him, F. W. de Klerk.
And as president, from 1994 to 1999, he devoted much energy to moderating the bitterness of his black electorate and to reassuring whites against their fears of vengeance.
The explanation for his absence of rancor, at least in part, is that Mr. Mandela was that rarity among revolutionaries and moral dissidents: a capable statesman, comfortable with compromise and impatient with the doctrinaire.
When the question was put to Mr. Mandela in an interview for this obituary in 2007 — after such barbarous torment, how do you keep hatred in check? — his answer was almost dismissive: Hating clouds the mind. It gets in the way of strategy. Leaders cannot afford to hate.
Except for a youthful flirtation with black nationalism, he seemed to have genuinely transcended the racial passions that tore at his country. Some who worked with him said this apparent magnanimity came easily to him because he always regarded himself as superior to his persecutors.
In his five years as president, Mr. Mandela, though still a sainted figure abroad, lost some luster at home as he strained to hold together a divided populace and to turn a fractious liberation movement into a credible government.
Some blacks — including Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Mr. Mandela’s former wife, who cultivated a following among the most disaffected blacks — complained that he had moved too slowly to narrow the vast gulf between the impoverished black majority and the more prosperous white minority. Some whites said he had failed to control crime, corruption and cronyism. Some blacks deserted government to make money; some whites emigrated, taking capital and knowledge with them.
Undoubtedly Mr. Mandela had become less attentive to the details of governing, turning over the daily responsibilities to the deputy who would succeed him in 1999, Thabo Mbeki.
But few among his countrymen doubted that without his patriarchal authority and political shrewdness South Africa might well have descended into civil war long before it reached its imperfect state of democracy.
After leaving the presidency, Mr. Mandela brought that moral stature to bear elsewhere around the continent, as a peace broker and champion of greater outside investment.
The fact of Nelson Mandela’s death, announced later this afternoon by the current President of South Africa, does not particularly come as a shock, of course. He had been quite ill for some time, as I made note of several times in posts here over the summer, and there had been previous rumors that he was in severely grave condition and indeed may not have regained consciousness during his last stint in the hospital during the mid-summer after which he had been returned to his family’s home. Nonetheless, his death is an occasion upon which to reflect upon the legacy that he left the world. The obituary from The New York Times, the opening paragraphs of which are quoted above, goes into great detail about the history of Mandela’s life, including the flirtation with militancy that led to his nearly three decade imprisonment on Robbin Island, and there’s no need to reproduce all of it in full here. I’ll simply recommend that you read it yourself.
However, I think the most important part of Mandela’s life isn’t the period in the 1960s and the events that led to his imprisonment, but the manner in which he conducted himself and led his nation when the 1990s dawned and he suddenly found himself a free man for the first time in nearly thirty years:
In February 1990, Mr. Mandela walked out of prison alongside his wife into a world that he knew little, and that knew him less. The African National Congress was now torn by factions — the prison veterans, those who had spent the years of struggle working legally in labor unions, and the exiles who had spent them in foreign capitals. The white government was also split, with some committed to negotiating an honest new order while others fomented factional violence in hopes of disabling the black political leadership.
Over the next four years Mr. Mandela would be embroiled in a laborious negotiation, not only with the white government, but also with his own fractious alliance.
But first he took time for a victory lap around the world, including an eight-city tour of the United States that began with a motorcade through delirious crowds in New York City.
Two years after Mr. Mandela’s release from prison, black and white leaders met in a convention center on the outskirts of Johannesburg for negotiations that would lead, fitfully, to an end of white rule. While outside in the country extremists black and white used violence to tilt the outcome their way, Mr. Mandela and the white president, Mr. de Klerk, argued and maneuvered toward a peaceful transfer of power.
Mr. Mandela understood the mutual need in his relationship with Mr. de Klerk, a proud, dour, chain-smoking pragmatist, but he never much liked or fully trusted him. Two years into the negotiations, the men were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and their appearance together in Oslo in 1993 was marked by bouts of pique and recriminations. In a conversation a year after becoming president, with Mr. de Klerk as deputy president, Mr. Mandela said he still suspected Mr. de Klerk of complicity in the murders of countless blacks by police and army units, a rogue “third force” opposed to black rule.
Eventually, though, Mr. Mandela and his negotiating team, led by the former labor leader Cyril Ramaphosa, found their way to the grand bargain that assured free elections in exchange for promising opposition parties a share of power and a guarantee that whites would not be subjected to reprisals.
At times, the ensuing election campaign seemed in danger of collapsing into chaos. Strife between rival Zulu factions cost hundreds of lives, and white extremists set off bombs at campaign rallies and assassinated the second most popular black figure, Chris Hani.
But the fear was more than offset by the excitement in black townships. Mr. Mandela, wearing a hearing aid and orthopedic socks, soldiered on through 12-hour campaign days, igniting euphoric crowds packed into dusty soccer stadiums and perched on building tops to sing liberation songs and cheer.
During elections in April 1994, voters lined up in some places for miles. The African National Congress won 62 percent of the vote, earning 252 of the 400 seats in Parliament’s National Assembly and ensuring that Mr. Mandela, as party leader, would be named president when Parliament convened.
Mr. Mandela was sworn in as president on May 10, and he accepted office with a speech of shared patriotism, summoning South Africans’ communal exhilaration in their land and their common relief at being freed from the world’s disapproval.
“Never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another and suffer the indignity of being the skunk of the world,” he declared.
Then nine Mirage fighter jets of the South African Air Force, originally purchased to help keep someone like Mr. Mandela from taking power, roared overhead, and 50,000 roared back from the lawn spread below the government buildings in Pretoria, “Viva the South African Air Force, viva!”
Apartheid would not have lasted much longer regardless of whether or not Nelson Mandela had been involved in its demise or not. The social and economic pressures that were building against the regime were having a real economic impact and the sheer demographics of the population made it inevitable that the white minority would not be able to hold onto power forever without giving power to the majority of people in the nation. Indeed, if anything was keeping political developments in South Africa from moving faster it was the fact that the Cold War was still very much a reality in the late 1980s and the white regime in South Africa was very deft at playing games with the United States and the rest of the West and the threat that South Africa dominated by the African National Congress would soon become closely allied to the Soviet Union, potentially giving them access to warm water ports at the tip of the African continent. Once the Cold War began to crumble, though, that argument became far weaker and the excuses but forward by the white regime for not reforming their political system began to ring more and more hollow. By the time Mandela was released, the Cold War was essentially over and those arguments largely fell on deaf ears. All of those events likely would have occurred with or without Mandela.
The question that hung over South Africa as apartheid began to collapse, though, is what would become of the nation after apartheid was over. Would there be a peaceful transition of power from whites to blacks, with protections put in place for the white minority that might choose to remain in the country? Or, would the nation follow the path of far too many nations on the African continent and descend into a bloody civil war as various ethnic groups became determined to grab power for itself while simultaneously carrying out retribution for actual and perceived conflicts that had taken place during, or been suppressed by, the years of apartheid? Mandela’s great contribution to history was the steps he took to ensure that his nation took the first path and not the second, and with the partnership of F.W. de Klerk, the last President of the apartheid era, he was able to accomplish that for the most part. For their work in this regard. Mandela and de Klerk were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993 “”for their work for the peaceful termination of the apartheid regime, and for laying the foundations for a new democratic South Africa.” It was a well-deserved award for both men, and especially for Mandela who easily could have come out of prison and sided with the militants in the ANC who had spent the 1980s engaging in terror tactics against both white and black political opponents and generally become more and more radical in his absence while he had become more moderate in prison.
Not surprisingly, there are tributes pouring in from around the world, and from here in the United States, where former Presidents Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush have all released statements. Then, earlier this evening, President Obama made this statement in the White House Press Briefing Room.
Early reports indicate that the official mourning activities in South Africa will be extensive and stretch out for a number of days. The State Funeral is likely to be attended by a wide variety of present and former world leaders, including President Obama. It is likely to be one of the most widely followed such events in decades, and certainly the most heavily attended such event on the African continent in quite some time. Given the life that Mandela led, and the example that he set in the end, it will be well-deserved.