Israel/Palestine: The Politics of a Two-State Solution

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  • When Peace Fails: Lessons from Belfast for the Middle East

Friday, December 6, 2013

Mandela: A Cross Between Lenin and Tutu

I was not sad to hear of the passing of Nelson Mandela. Not that I had anything against him, but he was 95 and I never thought that he was immortal. I was sad when Chris Hani was assassinated in 1993--I thought that it might lead to serious consequences and it would have had Mandela not exercised his restraint and control over black public opinion in South Africa. I was very sad when Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated in 1995, but relieved to learn that his murderer was a Jew and not an Arab.

President Obama said that we will never see another person like him. I disagree. After Galileo, the great physicist and astronomer, came Newton, the great mathematician, physicist and astronomer. And then Einstein the great physicist. After Lincoln came Disraeli in Britain, Franklin Roosevelt in the United States, David Ben Gurion in Israel, and Mandela in South Africa. Mandela's greatness was that in a single person he combined the personal integrity and courage of a figure like the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. or Archbishop Desmond Tutu with the political acumen of a great revolutionary leader like Lenin or Michael Collins of Ireland. It is rare to find these traits in a single individual. To be a great revolutionary requires an understanding of politics and history--and this requires detachment. Usually this detachment leads to moral remoteness and the tendency to see others as means and not ends, thus denying the principle of the great philosopher Immanuel Kant. Conversely getting too close to the subject usually compromises analytical ability. I respected and admired Tutu's personal courage in saving suspected informers from mob deaths, but I thought him a fool as a tactician.

Unlike President Obama I was not an anti-apartheid activist. When the anti-apartheid movement became big in the United States I was busy pursuing a doctorate in International Relations. I wrote my dissertation on the political counterinsurgency of white settlers in Southern Africa. For this I had to understand both white politics and black politics. I thus read the first biography of Nelson Mandela, written by Mary Benson, a white South African who was close to the African National Congress, published in 1986. Having read her biography I was not surprised by anything he did subsequently once he was released from prison. What surprised me was his release and the unbanning of the ANC and the Pan-Africanist Congress, a rival liberation movement, and especially the South African Communist Party. I expected F. W. de Klerk to behave like the conservative Afrikaner politician that he had been all of his political career and make the same mistakes of Prime Minister Ian Smith of Rhodesia and President P.W. Botha of South Africa. He did not. He demonstrated that even racists can learn from history and the mistakes of others.

Had De Klerk turned out to be another P.W. Botha, Mandela could have died in prison or at least been too old to play a real political role upon his release. Botha had astutely agreed to a political bargain in 1988 that gave South African-occupied Namibia independence in exchange for a Cuban withdrawal from Angola and a cutoff of South African support to the rebel UNITA movement of Jonas Savimbi in exchange for an end to Angolan support for the ANC. This meant that the last of the ANC's guerrilla camps in Southern Africa were closed and guerrillas were have to traverse a thousand miles from camps in Uganda and Tanzania to infiltrate South Africa. De Klerk unlike Smith, was smart enough to make concessions from a position of strength and negotiate a new political order in South Africa with the ANC. Had De Klerk not done this white rule in South Africa could easily have lasted into this century. But De Klerk knew that when the whites handed over power to the black majority the economy would be destroyed and his own Afrikaner people would have a grim future as another African tribe living in poverty in the country while the English-speaking whites departed for Britain, the United States, Australia, Israel, etc.

But Mandela who had 27 years to think about what he wanted free from distractions, proved to be a much better negotiator than De Klerk or anyone else from the National Party. Mandela spent his time in prison well. He learned Afrikaans, educated a new generation of black revolutionaries in the principles of non-racialism, and befriended his guards both in order to ease his own situation and that of his comrades and as practice for the future. The diet of grains and vegetables was very healthy and combined with the hard labor and exercise served to keep him fit and healthy. While his white countrymen were dying of heart attacks and cancer he was prolonging his own life. 

He knew how to manipulate his own celebrity and use world opinion against De Klerk. But once he had the constitution he wanted he was wise enough to include De Klerk and rival African leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi of KwaZulu in a government of national unity.  He also decided to keep the free enterprise system, which had been so abused by the social engineering of Afrikaners over the decades, as fortunately his colleagues in the ANC had learned from their time in exile in other African countries with command economies and in Moscow.

Several years ago I toured the American South and visited several civil rights museums in Alabama and Memphis. I came to appreciate that the movement was successful not just because of Martin Luther King Jr. but because of his colleagues in the leadership and the ordinary blacks who marched, boycotted, and suffered for the sake of victory. The same can be said of Mandela. With him in prison he had Walter Sisulu and Govan Mbeki. Unlike Winnie Mandela, Nelson's second wife, Albertina Sisulu did not become embittered by the imprisonment of her husband. She provided leadership to the United Democratic Front. While Mandela was in prison his former law partner, Oliver Tambo, led the ANC from its headquarters in London. The sons of both Sisulu and Mbeki played key roles in the ANC and the UDF. Thabo Mbeki became one of Mandela's vice-presidents and his successor. Mandela increasingly turned to him to run the economy of the country as Mandela grew older. Mandela was a lawyer by training and Mbeki an economist.

Benson's biography has now been overtaken by a new authorized biography by Fatima Meer of the ANC, very fine biographies by journalists like Anthony Sampson and Martin Meredith, both from England but who spent decades in Southern Africa, and by Mandela's own autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom. 

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