Embracing Democracy and Reconciliation in Principle

            Stephen Smith, who teaches African studies and cultural anthropology at Duke University, provides a provocative analysis, “Mandela, The Politician,” of Nelson Mandela’s legacy for his native nation in the current issue (January 9) of the London Review of Books. Among other points, Smith suggests that the leader faced a difficult dilemma when released from prison: Would he lead South Africa’s majority black population in retribution against decades of harsh injustice or seek another course in the name of building a more stable and democratic regime? As is well known, Mandela self-consciously sought not to punish his captors and, by extension, the ruling regime, either by unleashing war (as had occurred elsewhere on the Continent during many such transitions) or nationalizing or otherwise seizing its assets. He took this position and followed it by seeking to solidify democratic rule by stepping down after a single term as president. And thus far, at least comparatively, the country has held full and free elections and transitions since.

            Moreover, the economy of the nation, Africa’s largest, has also arguably fared well, with its GDP nearly tripling since 1996, when the international community lifted sanctions previously levied against the apartheid government. Nonetheless, Smith rightly argues that the nation has struggled economically in recent years in relative terms and especially in the wake of the long-lived global recession. Unemployment now hovers near 25% and runs as high as 35% when those individuals who have given up looking for work are included in estimates. Moreover, perhaps 25% of the population lives on less than $1.25 per day. Smith also raises the questions of the profound income and wealth inequality in the nation and of the costly and allegedly increasingly corrupt practices of its current President, Jacob Zuma, and of the dominant African National Congress party more generally.

            All of this sets off alarm bells for Smith, who, as he evaluates Mandela’s initial political choice for peaceful reconciliation, quotes approvingly the following criticism offered by one of the nation’s most prominent current financial journalists, Siki Mgabadeli,

In 1994 we were marketed as the ‘Rainbow Nation’ like a fancy commodity in an ad. But, in truth, Mandela was too preoccupied with white fears and not enough with black grievances and expectations of a better life. I know it isn’t easy to right the wrongs of three centuries of colonialism in 19 years, but from the onset Mandela was too timorous.

            Yet, vexingly, neither Mgabadeli nor Smith offers any alternative to Mandela’s course, other than to criticize it in retrospect as somehow insufficient. Moreover, Smith goes on to contend darkly the following as he discusses the tradeoffs Mandela made in favor of an effort to secure reconciliation by looking forward, rather than exacting payment for past injustices:

Why did Mandela take the risk? Because he foresaw the chance of national reconciliation, of an incremental coming-together or, at least, peaceful coexistence; if the circumstances could only be changed then people would change, even the most diehard racist or vengeful victim.

            And finally, Smith concludes that Mandela’s political wager in favor of democracy and reconciliation (that in his and Mgabadeli’s view was “too timorous”) has failed, although he is sufficiently humble to note he could be wrong:

In particular, he did not know then (on his release from prison in1990) that, at his death, circumstances in South Africa would not really have changed for the better: this is his defeat and, above all, the defeat of the ANC. Will the people persist with reconciliation and redeem their leader? I don’t think so but then I was proved wrong in the 1990s, when Mandela permitted the triumph of hope against all expectations by giving everybody a second chance, even his jailers.

            While I am sympathetic to Smith’s concerns about the current economic and political conditions in South Africa, I find his overall argument problematic for three reasons. First, it suggests that Mandela should have selected an alternate balance in 1990 without ever identifying what that political choice might have been and why it would have succeeded more completely than the decision Mandela did take. The appropriate criterion on which to make such a case would appear to be how the ANC leader might have provided a still more robust opportunity for his nation to move ahead democratically—with hope and with its economic infrastructure intact—with a different decision than the one he took. Smith does not address this concern. Instead, by quoting Mgabadeli positively, he simply notes that something more should have been done against the rightfully hated leaders and supporters of the apartheid regime and he leaves the matter there. This certainly falls far short of suggesting how Mandela erred and, in any case, does not address the issue of why his course was wrong in principle–assuming, for the sake of argument, and I think plausibly, that another path could have been charted. The challenge is to identify alternatives and to show why they would have yielded better outcomes. Smith undertakes neither analytic task.

            Second, while Smith highlights the nation’s ongoing struggles with inequality, corruption and sluggish growth, he says nothing concerning how the economic standing of the country overall might otherwise have been maintained in the nearly quarter-century since Mandela was released from prison had the ANC leader taken a different path. South Africa remains the economic behemoth of Africa and if its economy is being mismanaged, why should that reality be attributed to Mandela’s choice concerning how most effectively to secure reconciliation and democracy and not to those leaders who have since been responsible for the nation’s policy choices?

            Finally, relatedly and far more importantly, it seems to me that Smith here ultimately assigns responsibility for the nation’s current pass to Mandela’s principled decision to create conditions for reconciliation and democracy rather than to the choices of the nation’s leaders since he left office in 1999. In short, Smith nowhere makes clear how his position can be reconciled with the fact that the ANC has held power for the entire period of transition, nor does he determine what share of responsibility it and its leaders since should bear for the current situation since Mandela left office. My sense overall is that it is misleading and unfair to argue that matters could have been different had Mandela acted otherwise in 1990, and that today the nation would not be experiencing injustice or economic concerns as a result, without articulating how he should have acted and why, and offering an argument concerning why that course would not have encountered the same difficulties or worse than that which unfolded.

            All of this bears more than a faint resemblance to our nation’s own politics in which many of our country’s leaders decry current conditions without offering real alternatives to address them, other than to point to another’s previous choices. Likewise, in each case, it is the people of the nation, whether of South Africa or the United States, who ultimately will discern the reasonableness of such claims. Mandela took steps to ensure the possibility of popular sovereignty for his nation’s population and one may hope that its citizenry will demand changes in South Africa’s course without foregoing its freedom and economic potential in the process. I trust the same will hold true in the United States and those presently attacking the regime, rather than calling for constructive changes, will be defeated by more thoughtful and prudent arguments. Rightly, and however fragile the arbiter may be, the choice in each case will belong to the people of each nation. Smith suggests that the South African people will soon cry foul due to the difficulties the nation now confronts and demand a more retributive course than that on which Mandela embarked. He does not assay the costs associated with such a possibility. In my view, in so doing, Smith misses the lesson that Mandela’s fateful choice taught—his most significant legacy—that one must first ensure democratic possibility and the hope that attends it, before one may assume responsibility for self-governance and for ensuring freedom’s preservation. It is a lesson for the ages and one that the current leaders of South Africa and those of our own country, should heed.