The Unsung Legacy of Nelson Mandela

The memorial service for former South African prisoner-turned-president Nelson Mandela cemented the widespread portrayal of Mandela as a kind of secular saint—and the vilification of the American right for supposedly refusing to support him back in the 1980s.

The truth about Mandela, it turns out, is a lot more interesting than that.

First, let’s be honest about Mandela’s real history. While he opposed South Africa’s Apartheid system of institutionalized racism, it was far from clear during the height of that struggle whether Mandela was an advocate of liberty or not. In fact, it looked a lot like the answer was “not.”

R.W. Johnson provides the brief against Mandela, focusing on his early record as a sympathizer and (in Johnson’s telling) a pawn of the South African Communist Party, as well as some aspects of his mismanagement of South Africa after he took power. That early connection with the Communists—and as we shall see in a moment, his lifelong connection with Communist regimes—was real.

Johnson also gets something right about Mandela’s rapturous reception in the West: “there has, for a long time now, been an enormous Western longing to find and celebrate a Third World leader and saint.” I remember when Mandela was first released from prison and did a world tour. His reception by the mainstream American left had a lot of the same characteristics as Barack Obama’s rise to celebrity: nobody cared to ask too many questions about his associations, his ideology, and his agenda, because all of this was beside the point. It wasn’t really about Mandela. It was about Western liberals having an opportunity to demonstrate how Not Racist they are (and, correspondingly, that their opponents are Secretly Racist). This is the primary remaining source of moral legitimacy for the American left, and they’re going to hang on to it.

But some of us were a little more skeptical. An article in The New Republic criticizes the American right because they “haven’t wrestled with the Cold War” and acknowledged that “the contingencies of the Cold War led to these sorts of moral and humanitarian failures.” Yet there is no acknowledgement of Mandela’s own moral failures. As Michael Moynihan points out, “For a man imprisoned for his political beliefs, he had a weakness for those who did the very same thing to their ideological opponents, but were allowed a pass because they supported, for realpolitik reasons, the struggle against Apartheid.” He goes on to document Mandela’s expressions of sympathy toward miscreants like Fidel Casto, Moammar Gadhafi, and the regime in Iran—not just during the struggle against Apartheid, but to the very end.

This casts a different light on overwrought descriptions of Mandela as “the conscience of the world.” Sorry, folks, the “conscience of the world” doesn’t embrace Gadhafi as “brother leader.” This was, at the very least, a dreadful lapse of Mandela’s conscience.

It is the American left that has not really wrestled with the Cold War and the evils of Communism as a system of global oppression. They have not accepted the way in which Mandela’s Communist sympathies made it impossible for America to embrace his cause while the Soviet Union was still in existence. They also need to accept that, regardless of his specific stand toward Mandela, it was President Reagan who made the end of Apartheid possible. It was only after the collapse of the Soviet Union that South Africa’s white minority could make a deal with Mandela without having to fear that they would end up living in a province of the Soviet Empire.

We got a reminder of this at Mandela’s memorial when President Obama created a stir by shaking hands with Raul Castro, the successor to his older brother’s brutal dictatorship. (It is an interesting irony that the world’s remaining Communist regimes are also the only ones that practice dynastic succession, holding an entire country as the fiefdom of a powerful family.) The handshake was mitigated by Obama’s remarks at the memorial, in which he chided that “There are too many leaders who claim solidarity with Madiba’s struggle for freedom, but do not tolerate dissent from their own people.” But this is mitigated by the fact that he immediately preceded that sentence with this line: “There are too many people who happily embrace Madiba’s legacy of racial reconciliation, but passionately resist even modest reforms that would challenge chronic poverty and growing inequality.” So if you oppose higher taxes on the rich, you’re just as bad as the Castro dictatorship. This is our president’s standard-issue vilification of his political opposition, and no Obama speech would be complete without it.

But the bigger point was the fact that Castro was there at all, that he was welcomed as some kind of ally in the cause of freedom, despite the boot he keeps on the neck of his own people. The consequences of Mandela’s tolerance of dictatorship outside of South Africa could be seen in another ominous detail. While Robert Mugabe was mercifully not invited, “Mugabe’s name, in fact, was cheered every time the Zimbabwean president was mentioned at yesterday’s rain-soaked memorial service in Soweto.” Considering Mugabe’s record of political oppression and economic disaster next door, this is not good news for South Africa.

The overall point here is that when Mandela rose to power, there was an established template for what we could reasonably expect. The colonialist oppressors would be kicked out, but then the insurgent leader would set himself up as the new dictator. He would proceed to align himself with Communist dictatorships, plunder the nation’s economy, and plunge it into decades of poverty and oppression. This is a well-known cycle from which many African nations are only now beginning to emerge.

So when Mandela came to power, a lot of us had the sense that we had seen this movie before, and it didn’t have a happy ending.

But then Mandela, to his very great credit, tore up the script.

To begin with, Mandela pointedly refused to seek revenge against the old regime and its supporters, pioneering a Truth and Reconciliation Commission that offered amnesty to the old regime’s goons (and to his own side’s goons). During the Iraq War, I spent a lot of time figuring out the principles of counter-insurgency war, and one of the ways you win is by co-opting the insurgents, convincing them that they have no future if they hold out, but they do have a future if they flip their support to the government. It strikes me that the same thing applies in the other direction. One of the ways an insurgent can win is to convince the supporters of the old regime that they will have a future under the new regime and that they won’t all end up swinging from lampposts. This is particularly necessary when the old regime really is guilty. They know they have oppressed others, and they expect to be oppressed in return. This is what astonished the Japanese under American occupation: that we didn’t treat them anything like the way they treated us. This was what Mandela largely brought to South Africa. In the link above, R.W. Johnson brings a litany of complaints against Mandela, many of which may well be justified. But they are relatively minor compared to what a lesser leader would have done.

What is really astonishing, however, is the story about Mandela that has not been widely told up to now: how an insurgent leader steeped in Communism turned toward free markets.

Jake Bright describes the results:

Today, South Africa is Africa’s most powerful economy…. It has Sub-Saharan Africa’s largest stock market capitalization, most heavily traded currency, highest sovereign credit rating, and highest purchased government bonds. South Africa also maintains Africa’s most modern business infrastructure and attracts the greatest foreign direct investment and number of global companies.

All of this is a consequence of Mandela’s decisions when he we was voted into power.

As the first leader of post-apartheid South Africa, Mandela miraculously realigned the ANC’s socialist, development state orientation toward trade, investment, and connecting to global capital markets…. In 2000, Mandela would say: “As I moved around the world and heard the opinions of leading business people and economists about how to grow an economy, I was persuaded and convinced about the free market.”

New York Times business columnist Andrew Ross Sorkin provides more detail about Mandela’s conversion.

When Mr. Mandela was released from prison in 1990, he told his followers in the African National Congress that he believed in the nationalization of South Africa’s main businesses. “The nationalization of the mines, banks and monopoly industries is the policy of the ANC, and a change or modification of our views in this regard is inconceivable,” he said at the time.

Inconceivable? Apparently, that word didn’t mean what he thought it meant.

The story of Mr. Mandela’s evolving economic view is eye-opening: It happened in January 1992 during a trip to Davos, Switzerland, for the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum. Mr. Mandela was persuaded to support an economic framework for South Africa based on capitalism and globalization after a series of conversations with other world leaders.

“They changed my views altogether,” Mr. Mandela told Anthony Sampson, his friend and the author of Mandela: The Authorized Biography. “I came home to say: ‘Chaps, we have to choose. We either keep nationalization and get no investment, or we modify our own attitude and get investment.'”…

[A]s the five-day conference of high-level speed-dating wore on, Mr. Mandela soon decided he needed to reconsider his long-held views: “Madiba then had some very interesting meetings with the leaders of the Communist Parties of China and Vietnam,” Mr. Mboweni wrote, using Mr. Mandela’s clan name. “They told him frankly as follows: ‘We are currently striving to privatize state enterprises and invite private enterprise into our economies. We are Communist Party governments, and you are a leader of a national liberation movement. Why are you talking about nationalization?'”

Now there is a little slice of what 1992 was like: Communist governments sitting down with an insurgent leader and patiently explaining to him the virtues of privatization. Maybe somebody should sit down and have a similar conversation with Pope Francis.

Noah Feldman even accuses Mandela “selling out black South Africans.”

[I]t’s incontrovertibly true that after centuries of being robbed of possibly the greatest mineral wealth the world has ever known, not to mention decades of being repressed by apartheid, black South Africans got almost no compensation for what should rightfully have been theirs when the old regime was swept away for the new South Africa.

Incontrovertible? There’s another word that doesn’t mean what he thinks it means. Sub-Saharan Africa was not a wealthy region that was looted, dispossessed, and impoverished by the arrival of Europeans. It was dirt-poor and undeveloped before Europeans arrived, and its mineral (and agricultural) wealth was largely discovered and developed by the European colonists. So here we see an American columnist clinging more stubbornly to socialism than Mandela ever did, accepting as “incontrovertible” the premise that mines, farms, and factories belong to the collective rather than to the individuals who built them.

But even Feldman reluctantly accepts the practical case for Mandela’s decision.

On the positive side, if black South Africans could accept the deal Mandela had struck, the country might avoid the flight of whites—and with them white capital—that had happened in other countries on the continent. In the aftermath of morally justified redistribution of wealth, many sub-Saharan countries had found themselves poorer, not richer.

He also makes a very important observation about the political consequences of Mandela’s decision not to loot the country’s white majority.

Perhaps the continued presence of white South Africans in positions of economic importance would create an incentive for the ANC leadership to govern democratically. No credible democratic political opposition to the party that fought for and achieved freedom was going to exist for a long while. To keep the government honest, then, a different threat was needed: the threat of flight by white capital should the ANC subvert democratic practices and values might actually help the country going forward.

There is a reason dictatorships tend to expropriate property and seek control over the economy, even if they have rejected Marxism. (See Vladimir Putin’s rule in post-Communist Russia.) They do it to eliminate any social force that is independent and capable of supporting political opposition. By leaving independent economic forces in place, Mandela provided a brake on the power of the ruling African National Congress, helping South Africa avoid the fate of Zimbabwe.

That is Mandela’s true enduring legacy. He leaves behind a lot of problems, and it is possible that his less worthy successors will still wreck the country. But he also left behind a surprising legacy of freedom that goes beyond the dismantling of Apartheid and may give South Africa the political and economic means to survive and prosper.

If only that aspect of Mandela’s legacy were more widely recognized and celebrated.

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