NOTE. What follows below was first written before I was aware of evidence that has come to light about Mr. Mandela’s Communist past. While this is undoubtedly emabarrassing for his more uncritical supporters, it does not detract from what he achieved later in his life. L.T.
On a cold day in January 1965 the world mourned the death of a great man. Few of those who saw him then will be able to forget the frail Clement Attlee muffled against the wind – on the steps of St. Paul’s as he paid tribute to his rival Sir Winston Churchill. In such moments the disagreements that are the stuff of politics are eclipsed by the achievements of the life that must be celebrated. Just as there was a case against Churchill, so there is a substantial case against Mandela. Neither man was a saint. Neither man was blessed with infallible judgment, and consequently both men made mistakes. Obviously Attlee on the steps of St. Paul’s was not listing of Churchill’s errors, about ( say ) India so this is not the moment to analyse Mr. Mandela’s Communist past or his opposition to sanctions against the delinquent Robert Mugabe. Just as Atlee was probably then thinking of Churchill’s soaring rhetoric “Never in the field of human conflict have so many owed so much to so few” – so now we should rather be trying to understand Mandela’s widespread but not universal appeal and his considerable achievements. Just as then the world sympathised with Lady Churchill in her loss, so now we should of course thinking of not only Mr. Mandela’s extended family; but also of all those who loved and admired him – especially in South Africa, the field of his triumphs and throughout the continent which was his home.
Nowhere is change more rapid or obvious than in Africa. In January 1989 the Carlton Centre in Johannesburg was frequented almost exclusively by whites. However by that May there were as many black faces on the elevators as there were white ones. This was obviously not part of any planned takeover; but rather a reflection of the vast, even volcanic economic and social forces which were reshaping South Africa.
In September 1970 this eulogist was obliged to read “The Human Factor in changing Africa” (New York, 1958, 1962) by the great American anthropologist Melville Herskovits (1895-1963) as part of a course on what was then called “non- western history”. In the book Herskovits describes the themes which were to transform Africa in the decade after his death. The titles of some of his chapters indicate his priorities: “the incomers”, “the land”, “the book”, “the school”, “the city” and, most relevantly “towards self government”. Mandela’s autobiography Long March to Freedom, indeed his whole extraordinary career can usefully be viewed as an illustration of what the American anthropologist had described.
Nelson Mandela’s life was the story of modern Africa. Although he was born in the rural Transkei, spending his childhood in an exclusively African environment, his formal education was European in content. But this formed part of a more traditional African upbringing which was intended to culminate in him adopting the role of an advisor to a local monarch, which was his by hereditary right. And this is almost certainly what he would have become had not the role also included an arranged marriage to a woman who was obviously in love with someone else. Consequently he ran away to Johannesburg where he became a lawyer, and gradually became involved first in politics and then in the armed struggle against the apartheid government.
His story then, utterly individual and compellingly if perhaps not fully told in his autobiography, is both typical of the sometimes agonisingly difficult interaction between traditional ways and European culture which was the distinguishing feature of Africa in the twentieth century. Herskovits devotes an extended section to exploring the impact of Islamic and Christian missionaries in Africa. It is no surprise, then, to learn that Mandela’s first marriage – which he had contracted soon after he had arrived in Johannesburg – fell apart because his wife became a Jehovah’s Witness. Who was the more modern? The young Methodist/ Marxist lawyer/ politician with deep affection for traditional ways; or his wife nervous of politics but attracted by a religion brought by the “newcomers.” Such disputes, however they are understood, and however they are resolved, are the stuff of modern Africa. Every African knows them.
The clashes between modernity and traditional cultures, whether in Africa or elsewhere – profoundly challenge all those caught up in them. Traditional societies provide consolation but they also control and curtail. Modern cultures uproot and free. The path between the two ways of living is not easily discerned.
In South Africa this conflict was to be made more complicated and bitter by the arrival of a tribe of mainly Dutch, with some French –speaking ( one thinks of the name De Klerk), Calvinists in South Africa in the seventeenth century. The first Europeans to reach South Africa had been the Portuguese, but, for them, the Cape was just a way-station on their route to the Far East, as it was, at first, for the Dutch who soon followed them. But the Dutch stayed. Soon a Dutch speaking community emerged, and, whatever the political arrangements were later, most South African whites were always to be Dutch – speaking Calvinists.
Two American scholars have described the Calvinist communities which grew up in North western Europe as being as “in eradicable as dandelions.” Calvin himself was a child of modernity, but Calvinism has a tendency to produce deeply traditional, even reactionary societies. The clash between traditional ways and modernity is not limited to black South African communities. Why then are Calvinists so “dour” ( to use the word employed by Churchill about the Boers- the name given to South Africans of Dutch descent)?
The central psychological problem of Calvinism is the identification of the elect. To put it crudely, if salvation depends not on one’s acts of charity, then the only remaining evidence of God’s pleasure is the acquisition of wealth. In Europe, it is true, Calvinism ultimately became associated with capitalism and hence in time with liberal institutions. But in Africa it was easy for membership in the chosen race rather than personal achievement to become the factor that identified the elect. And once this step had been taken it needed only the introduction of a little “scientific” racism for the intellectual pathway to Apartheid to have been mapped out.
Black South Africans had been badly treated before the ideological attempt began to construct a sub-continent, dominated by whites- in which the various races were kept separate. But this effort to controla and curtail began in earnest ( and “earnest” is exactly the right word here) with the election of the largely Afrikaans-speaking nationalist party in 1948. It was made clear to black South Africans that they could never hope to exercise any political authority save – eventually – in the “homelands” far from the cities where many of them lived.
Since the dogmas of Apartheid were grounded in a pendant to a deviant theology, in a hopelessly exaggerated understanding of the importance of race, and further misled by a weak grasp of economics, it is no surprise that the attempt to enact them gave rise to a horrifying cascade of ill-judged legislation. While conservatives elsewhere were building what they called “property owning democracy”, black South Africans were denied the right to own property. There were to be no South African kulaks, only migrant workers. Liberal whites spoke freely of the prospect of a “blood bath”- and they were not wrong.
Nelson Mandela had arrived in Johannesburg in the early nineteen forties, where he practised law , and soon became deeply involved in opposition to the Nationalist government. But it was his next step that shaped his life, and provided the surprising context within which he was to emerge as the leader of the new South Africa. Mandela’s decision to become involved in political violence – that led to his famously prolonged imprisonment – will always remain highly controversial. In the long view, however, the terrorist activity of the ANC – such as it was – was far less important in the South African transition, than were a number of other factors, the weakness of the government’s case, the unexpected flexibility of that other remarkable South African, F. W. de Klerk, the fall of communism, the impact of sanctions ( which had other less desirable unintended consequences ) and perhaps most influential of all the leadership of Nelson Mandela.
Great men are all different: they are formed by their circumstances. If France had not fallen, there would have been no greatness for Churchill, and no call for his rhetoric. Equally there would have been no role for Mandela had not the Nationalists created the precisely the context within which his particular strengths could be most useful and effective. He was fortunate in having photogenic good looks, sweetness of temper, and great charm.
That said there were several deeper factors in his character that contributed most to his achievement. His training in traditional state craft as well as his disposition mean that
he saw the world, and above all other people clearly, unfiltered by prejudice. The very fact that he was not rootless, made it easy for him to understand those who were rooted- perhaps too rooted – in their own very different culture. He was a highly observant man. His account of the traditional rite of circumcision which he underwent in his youth is in this respect an exceptional document. A ghost writer may have sharpened it, but even so it displays remarkable powers of observation, and recall. He had the ability then to stand both firmly within his own tradition and to able to observe it objectively. This gift of sympathy was to be extremely important in the web of South African politics – a political cosmos entirely dominated by questions of identity rather than policy.
He was also very intelligent. His though was not an intelligence which isolated him from the world. Had he not become a politician he would have become a businessman rather than an academic. He never lost touch with facts. This realism was combined with a self confidence derived from his inherited social position and his natural intelligence meant that he always found himself be able to compromise about matters which he did not regard as being essential. His flexibility meant that he was able to work with all the various factions within the ANC and that he was able to persuade the Nationalist leadership that he was ( to use the words of Mrs Thatcher about Gorbachev) that he was someone they “could do business with.” Similarly – surprisingly given what we now know more fully to have been his Communist past – he was able to persuade the ordinary white South African voter that they had nothing to fear from him; that while he demanded justice he did not seek retribution.
Important though these strengths of intelligence, self confidence, sympathy, and flexibility were Mandela would have achieved little had he not also been able to articulate the grievances, the fears, the hopes, the ambitions, and the demands of his fellow black South Africans. Although he was absent through much of the armed struggle his record in it gave him a credibility he would otherwise have lacked. His fellow black South African knew that however much he was obliged to compromise he could and would deploy his formidable gifts in their interest. And it was then because he possessed these remarkable qualities that the new South Africa is built in his image, and why he is now so properly mourned so deeply by so many.