No, Mandela was not wrong. The fault is all ours
The case for a radical reconciliation
On July 18 this year Nelson Mandela (born 1918) would have been 100 years old. No South African over the centuries has more inspired his people at home and built the prestige of the nation abroad. A taxi driver in Delhi or a ferry operator in San Francisco or a fisherman in Dakar are together more likely to know Mandela than any other foreign leader on the planet. And yet in recent times the Mandela name has taken a hit. He sold us out, say the more militant youth. His recently deceased wife claimed Mandela’s party “over-negotiated” leading to loss such as on the land issue. Do not mention the word “rainbow” to the growing chorus of the disenchanted; there’s no black in the rainbow, said one. And only a brave soul would raise that other “R” word—Madiba’s brand—in an angry crowd: reconciliation. Was Mandela wrong?It is easy to sit this side of history and make harsh judgments about Mandela’s negotiators in the early 1990s. Those who were there, alive at the time, will remember the stakes. The apartheid state was in charge and had at its disposal the most powerful military on the continent. Yes it was under political pressure from abroad to abandon its racist policies and was reeling from economic pressures that threatened the survival of the state. But the white government was also under pressure from its base to retain as much of the status quo as possible, from white schools and the Afrikaans language to land ownership and minority protections. Negotiate, as the white referendum asked, but don’t give away privilege.The country had reached a stalemate. The apartheid state could not maintain power indefinitely; nor could the liberation movements overthrow the government. Both sides seemed clear on that equation. The only way out was negotiations. In the meantime, the hills of KwaZulu-Natal and the streets of the East Rand were dripping with blood as a mix of army, police, rival political organisations, rogue forces and third-force elements mowed down ordinary South Africans on an almost daily basis. Books about “midnight” and “bloodbaths” started to surface. We were on the edge of the precipice. The main protagonists had to negotiate and watching over that process were some powerful supranational organisations that advised and threatened that any radical moves (land expropriation, nationalisation) would be punished.In negotiations, you give and take. You seek solutions. You make judgments about what is possible under specified conditions. Unreasonable demands could easily return the parties to war with unthinkable consequences for black and white together. There was enough bloodshed. Let’s make a deal.The brilliance of Mandela was that he recognised that the way out of the apartheid mess was together. That meant bringing whites and blacks together through a programme of reconciliation. He recognised the fears and the hopes on both sides. Mandela and his party would not impose Nuremberg-type trials on white leaders and extract revenge on their people. That would have been disastrous for all concerned. It was the best path. What happened since Madiba was the problem — with good polices and good will, we could have changed this country. But the collapse of the government under state capture, corrupt and ineffective leadership of state-owned enterprises and the failures to fix education, meant that we squandered that proverbial window of opportunity. Mandela was not the problem; we are.The resurfacing of race as a dangerous fault line in South African discourse — from racist acts by individuals to racial antagonisms stirred by land redistribution talk — reminds us again of the relevance of Nelson Mandela.
First of all, we need to reclaim his legacy of reconciliation but of a very different kind. I would like to call this a radical reconciliation. It is reconciliation with a purpose. There needs to be extraordinary political leadership that brings white and black together in an acknowledgment of the past that leads to considered action for the future. Take education as but one example.Competent teachers from the privileged schools need to be placed in struggling schools without being coerced. A once-off wealth task must be levied and directed strictly to giving high quality, well-organised pre-school education to the children of the poor. Privileged primary schools must dedicate 10% of their enrollments to poor talented children from outside of their catchment areas — and pay for it through the fee income from the well-off. The private sector should be required to build libraries and computer labs with optimum security in the bottom 20% of schools with corresponding training and support.None of these actions will be taken up by the privileged without moral leadership from the centre. A government that again becomes known for corruption within state enterprises and the failure to act on unions routinely disrupting the education will quickly lose the faith of the privileged classes to want to share of their wealth beyond the routine payment of taxes.
In return, political leadership needs to recognise and reassure white citizens. Here the Mandelian gesture is so important — for example, the current president’s state of the nation only referenced black Africans; nobody else mattered. That is the wrong message in a society whose racial nerves have been rattled by political noises from government.
A radical reconciliation could help heal our country.