Former South African President Nelson Mandela died Friday at the age of 95, and he will be missed by all. The left will forever honor him for all he did to bring down his country’s racist apartheid regime, and the right will always admire him for the things he didn’t do after he gained power.
Most of the adulatory obituaries will stress Mandela’s actions against apartheid, which is understandable. The system of minority rule by the country’s European conquerors was outrageously unfair in its conception, unimaginably brutal in its enforcement, and entirely catastrophic in its results, while Mandela’s heroic opposition entailed 27 years of imprisonment and countless acts of physical and moral courage. It’s a story much loved by the left, which even now uses it to criticize the right for its alleged support of apartheid, but it’s less important and inspiring than what happened after apartheid was toppled and Mandela became his country’s first black president.
Among its other flaws the left’s favored narrative misstates the right’s position on apartheid during the time of Mandela’s struggle. While it is true that President Ronald Reagan opposed the left’s campaign to impose economic sanctions on the apartheid regime, and vetoed a bill that would have barred trade with South Africa, it was not because of an affinity for the system. Reagan publicly denounced apartheid as “morally wrong and politically unacceptable,” and applied much diplomatic effort to end it, but also argued that sanctions would impose more pain on the country’s black citizens than on the government that was oppressing them. The claim remains improvable, but neither can it be disproved, and liberals should take notice that the Obama administration is now making much the same argument for easing sanctions on an equally deplorable Iranian regime.
Conservatives were also cautious about what might happen in a post-apartheid South Africa, and not without reason. Mandela was a self-described communist, so there were legitimate concerns that his ascendancy to power in Africa’s economic powerhouse might tilt the balance of power toward a Soviet Union that was oppressing many millions more people behind the Iron Curtain. His wife was a mean piece of work who had participated in the sadistic killings of black rivals to Mandela’s African National Congress, and the ethnic rivalries within the black population that had long pre-dated the arrival of the Europeans seemed ready to explode in the absence of an authoritarian government. The record of black rule in post-colonial Africa was bleak, with economic devastation and mass starvation and brutal inter-tribal warfare the usual outcome, and there was little cause for hope that the outcome in South Africa would prove an exception to the rule. It was hard to imagine that anything might be worse than apartheid, but the conservative temperament is ever mindful that it was hard to imagine what could be worse than Czarist Russia, Bautista’s Cuba, or the Shah’s Iran, and that the Russians, Cubans, and Iranians all subsequently found out.
That the conservatives’ most dire predictions never came to pass is the most impressive part of Mandela’s story, but of less value for the liberals’ propaganda purposes. To the disappointment of leftists everywhere Mandela did not align the country with the Soviet Union, helping the Cold War come to a successful conclusion a short time later, nor did he impose the Afro-Marxist reforms that had made an economic basket case of the rest of sub-Saharan Africa in the post-colonial era, and with international sanctions lifted his country’s economy survived his more modest efforts. Mandela also proved a true Democrat, modestly declining the opportunity to assume the dictatorial powers that other African revolutionaries had killed for, joining Cincinnatus of ancient Rome and George Washington of early America as one of the few men in history to do so. Perhaps more importantly, Mandela rejected the race-conscious identity politics of the western left and stressed a commonality of man that began with forgiveness for the whites who had treated him so harshly, avoiding the mass killings of retribution that had brought so much misery to other African states. Perhaps it was pragmatism rather than principle, and based on the logical conclusion that killing all the white people in a land that had so long denied educational opportunities to its black people would have unhappy economic consequences for the surviving blacks, but in any case it worked.
South Africa did not become paradise under Mandela’s leadership. Lifting the heavy hand of apartheid unleashed a wave of murder and violence that has at times reduced South Africa to a Hobbesian state of nature, the economy remains a success only by the rock-bottom standards of South Africa, and all the manifest failings of human nature are as evident there as anywhere else. Still, it could have been worse. To see how much worse it might have been without Mandela one need only next door to Zimbabwe, where Robert Mugabe took over in the former apartheid country of Rhodesia and promptly proved all the conservatives’ predictions true. Mugabe was also a hero of the international left when he came to power, but neither the left nor the rest of the world will ever honor his name as it does Mandela’s.
– Bud Norman