Nelson Mandela transformed South Africa in part because he was first able to transform himself. And therein, of course, lies perhaps the greatest lesson of his remarkable life, and the hardest one to learn.
Because he was somehow able to find in his years of imprisonment a form of personal liberation that freed him from anger, resentment and revenge, he emerged from prison with the only vision that could possibly transform South Africa from a racist police state into a relatively peaceful and truly democratic, multi-ethnic nation.
Within the discovery of that internal freedom was clearly the seed of a nation’s freedom and the extraordinary future almost no one predicted for a place seemingly poised on the verge of a bloody convulsion.
How South Africa escaped a civil war that would have torn it, and much of Africa, apart, is one of the great lessons of human history, and it’s a lesson that should become part of the required curriculum in every classroom, in every school, in every country.
But the lesson is more complicated than the story of a single exceptional man. The impulse to deify Mandela is compelling, but there was more to the complex equation of South Africa’s liberation than the transcendent spirit of a charismatic and remarkably wise leader. The global campaign to drive western investment out of South Africa had an important impact on the apartheid regime, while it ironically cast into stark relief the tortured Cold War politics that gave Ronald Reagan an excuse to accommodate apartheid through the vacuous policy of “constructive engagement.”
When our president vetoed Congressional sanctions against South Africa in 1986, it was in the wake of a profoundly naïve or dangerously misleading belief that the regime of P.W. Botha had eliminated segregation. In a 1985 radio interview, Reagan said, “They have eliminated the segregation that we once had in our own country — the type of thing where hotels and restaurants and places of entertainment and so forth were segregated — that has all been eliminated.”
Of course it had not, and a year later South Africa imposed martial law to further contain its rebellious black population, still saddled with passbooks and prison sentences, for trying to speak and move with freedom. And the U.S. Senate, to its everlasting credit, managed the two-thirds vote needed to override the Reagan veto.
There are many parts to the Mandela lesson plan, not the least of which is that profit is still too often blind to principle and western corporate interests were for years more invested in financial returns than human justice in South Africa.
“Constructive engagement,” ostensibly a strategy for gradually growing moderate voices inside a radically evil system, likely extended the life of apartheid, and certainly gave some American corporations a couple more years to fatten their portfolios.
But the divestment campaign, with roots at UC Berkeley, had a powerful impact on apartheid, and on American corporations profiting from a South African labor system sometimes described as indentured servitude, just a cut above slavery.
As President Obama recently said, Nelson Mandela may be the greatest man any of us alive have shared the planet with. Let’s hope his legacy reminds us of the work we have left to do on ourselves and on our nation.