Below, an excerpt from “Nelson Mandela’s Legacy.” The author, John Carlin, is a senior international writer for El Pais, and the author of Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Made a Nation, the basis for the film Invictus directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon. The article appeared in the December 7 issue of the The Cairo Review of Global Affairs
This is far and away the best piece that I have read about Mandela. (Hat tip to Clifton Leaf for calling attention to it on Twitter. I urge everyone to read it
“Mandela had the same effect on practically everyone he met. Take the case of General Constand Viljoen, who in 1993, with the path set for multiracial elections a year later, was anointed leader of South Africa’s far right, charged with heading “the white freedom struggle.” Viljoen, who had been head of the South African Defence Force between 1980 and 1985, travelled the country organizing what he called armed resistance units, others called terrorist cells. Mandela reached out to him through intermediaries and the two men met in secret at his home. Viljoen, with whom I have talked about this encounter, was almost instantly disarmed. Expecting a monster, having conditioned himself to regard Mandela as a fearsome Communist with little regard for human life, Viljoen was dumbstruck by Mandela’s big, warm smile, by his courteous attentiveness to detail (‘Do you take sugar in your tea, General?’), by his keen knowledge of the history of white South Africa and his sensitivity to the apprehensions and fears white South Africans were feeling at that time. When the two men began discussing matters of substance, Mandela put it to him that, yes, he could go to war and, yes, his people were more skilled in the military arts than black South Africans; but against that, if it came to race war, black South Africa had the numbers, as well as the guaranteed support of practically the entire international community. There could be no winners, Mandela said. The general did not disagree.
“That first meeting led to another, then another. Viljoen succumbed to Mandela’s lethally effective political cocktail of charm, respect, integrity, pragmatism and hard-nosed sense. He called off the planned ‘armed struggle’ and, to the amazement of the South African political world, he agreed to take part in the all-race elections of April 1994, thereby giving his blessing to the political transformation Mandela had engineered, agreeing to the peaceful hand over of power from the white minority to the totality of the population. Viljoen won a parliamentary seat in representation of his freshly formed rightwing Freedom Front and I remember watching him on the day the new, all race parliament was inaugurated. Mandela was the last to enter the chamber and, as he walked in, Viljoen’s eyes settled on his new black president. His face wore an expression that could only be described, I thought at the time, as adoration. I asked him when we talked some years later whether I had been right in that description and he said I had been. The retired general also reminded me that before taking his seat on that inaugural parliamentary occasion Mandela had broken protocol by crossing the floor to shake hands with him. What had Mandela said to him? ‘He said, “I am very happy to see you here, general’.” And what did the general reply? ‘I said nothing. I am a military man and he was my president. I shook his hand and I stood to attention.’”
A Note to HealthBeat readers:
Carlin points out that “The big truth about Mandela is that . . . he achieved the historically rare feat of uniting a fiercely divided country.”
This led me to reflect: Might someone emerge who possesses the character, generous vision, and hard-nosed pragmatism needed to unite the deeply polarized nation that we live in today?
Lord knows, during his first term, President Obama struggled to find common ground with Republicans. But he did not persuade them. I have argued that conservatives are simply too angry—and too scared by the changes they see coming– to listen to reason. Yet surely the South African Defence was just as angry, and just as scared.
But Barack Obama’s first term began when he was just 47. Nelson Mandela became president of South Africa when he was 76. No one could expect the younger man to possess the older man’s wisdom. Twenty-seven years in jail had given Nelson Mandela a great deal of time to think; his spirit and his resolve were forged in that purgatory. Mandela’s life experience had put him in a unique position to shape history.
Obama also left his mark on our society. Obamacare will change health care in America, and given the strength of the opposition, it is a miracle that the legislation survived.
If Obama had been older and wiser, could he have brought this nation together back in 2008?
I would say “No. ”Mandela enjoyed a critical advantage: “Both he and General Viljoen knew that “if it came to [a] race war, black South Africa had the numbers . . .”
Even today, hard-liners in the Republican Party do not realize that the majority of Americans reject their far-right creed. Not yet. They still think that they represent the majority—that they are the majority, that this is their country– and for that reason they are not ready to yield an inch.