Nelson Mandela, who led the first post-Apartheid South African government, is gone. Editorials and broadcasts will laud his achievements and shore up his legacy as a statesmen and liberator. Certainly he sought to lead all South Africans, regardless of race, worked to reign in the justice-as-vengeance element in his African National Congress, and, remarkably for a sub-Saharan African leader, stepped down when his term of office was done.
Yet Uncle Cephas wishes to register a dissent. South Africa is today a country on the decline, suffers from the flight of not only its white population but its capital as well, and is infamous for corruption. Criminality, including murder, has gone way up. Its troops serving in eastern Congo under the UN banner as "peacekeepers" were notorious for rape and looting. It remains an open question whether or not it will follow the path of decline and racial vengeance blazed by Mugabe's Zimbabwe--nay, by Lumumba's Congo. True, post-Apartheid South Africa could have been a much worse place than it turned out to be. The history of African independence was never an encouraging one; and that of Marxist revolution even less so. But these are reasons why Mandela's legacy remains an open issue.
My own short and unremarkable diplommatic career occurred during those heady days when the Cold War had just ended. It was followed by a time sporadic employment, a Ph.D. degree in political science, and another round of teaching English in Taiwan--plus a lot of other reading, including the Prophets of Israel, George Orwell's "Shooting an Elephant", and Liu E's Lao Can You Ji (老残游记). This leads me to believe that a South Africa for which there is still hope may owe more to a kindly providence (and, as a Calvinist Christian, I don't use this word lightly) than to Mandela's leadership. Perhaps someone very near to the heart of the Almighty was praying for God's blessing on his or her country.
Mandela's ANC was a strongly pro-Soviet, pro-Communist, anti-capitalist, anti-Western organization. At least it was during the decades prior to its triumph. Many of its members were Libyan- or PLO-trained terrorists, and its ties to Qaddafy's regime and the intelligence/security organs of the Eastern Bloc were close. Observers who saw it closer up than I have noticed it was permeated by an idea of justice as vengeance and poor in ideas about how it would create, rather than redistribute, wealth in a post-Apartheid South Africa. Mandela's own admiration for Castro's Cuban dictatorship never wavered. Mandela's former wife Winnie was notorious for a violent streak, and it was a reasonable expectation that a post-Apartheid South Africa could well turn into one more subsaharan combination of greatleadership with kleptocracy liberally seasoned with ethnic violence. Such was the case with many other Soviet clients in subsaharan Africa.
Yet as Mandela emerged from prison and moved towards power, his Soviet sponsors were collapsing. Even the stability of the Chinese Communist regime remained precarious in the 1990's, with the scars of Tiananmen still fresh and the economic takeoff still limited. Any outside help that a post-Apartheid South Africa might get would have to come from a Western world that was both loathed by Mandela's power base and in a position to leave a new non-Western dictatorship-cum-kleptocracy (the story of much of Mandela's continent) high and dry. It was an era in which a Communist Laos that once boasted of its triumph over American imperialism begged for aid from its old adversary,and had to be satisfied with being bought bit by bit by Thai businessmen, later to be joined by their Chinese counterparts, instead.
Mandela thus found himself caught between the justice-as-vengeance, African socialist expectations of his followers and a course of events that did not favor such a development. In the end, he recognized that he could not be a president-for-life and master redistributor of extant wealth in the world into which he emerged from prison. He was perhaps also wise in countenancing his followers' slide into widespread petty corruption following their political victory.
And such corruption, as noticed by Liu E more than a century ago, is a small mercy to peoples living under countries with either no constitutional tradition (as late-Qing China) or very weak ones (as much of Africa and the post-totalitarian world). The ANC's own tradition has always been far more Stalinist than Jeffersonian, and hence a very real potential danger to its citizens of all colors. The corrupt official is someone into whom ordinary people might sink a handle; the incorrupt one unconstrained by a strong limited government tradition is someone who feels free to bully and oppress.
In the Taiwan of the early 2000's where I taught English, there were many South African migrants working either as small businessmen or as--surprise--my competition. They were not only white, but also Asian, Colored, and even Bantu. Generally, they were of the mind that their country was in decline, was far less safe, and far more likely to threaten its citizens. True, they were by-and-large people formed by Apartheid. Yet although many were not supporters of the old regime, they did not feel secure with the new.
We do not know which direction South Africa will take. Hopefully, it will be spared the great leaders who have plagued much of the continent between the Limpopo and Mediterranean. Hoepfully, it will recognize that the model in which Mandela, its pioneering leader, once hoped is a dangerous temptation and certain to fail, and follow the better lights of the Western tradition to which South Africa is at least partly tied.
Yes, Mandela was brave, and exhibited real wisdom at a crucial time in his country's history. But it is also true that a slightly different timing to recent history may well have led him in a different direction. As Orwell noted in his Burmese memoir, rulers and leaders often are carried along by the expectations of the governed, and make their decisions accordingly. In Mandela's case, the timing and flow of events may also have given him a legacy far better than the one he might have left had he been completely free to follow the ideological models in which he initially believed.