06 December 2013

Mandela: the last heroic statesman?

If Nelson Mandela was thinking of his legacy on his deathbed, he might have thanked providence for Robert Mugabe. Because of their nation's proximity, Mandela (who died yesterday after a long deathwatch) and Mugabe will stand in history as antithetical examples of liberation fighters turned political leaders. Especially outside Africa, I suspect, Mugabe's rotten record burnishes Mandela's, so that the South African will less often be criticized for things he didn't do, or didn't do adequately -- most notably reducing inequality -- than he'll be praised for a different set of things he didn't do. Until yesterday, Mandela may have been regarded as the greatest man living because, unlike Mugabe, he didn't descend to thuggish politics as President; didn't think of himself as an indispensable man (Mugabe, only six years Mandela's junior, jealously clings to power); didn't use power to take revenge on his oppressors or their ethnic group. Mugabe fulfilled nearly every fear, bigoted or otherwise of what black Africans would do upon taking power from whites; Mandela refuted them. Objectively, not everything Mugabe has done has been wrong on principle, but he seems to have done everything from the primary motive of self-aggrandizement, and done most of it poorly. It need not follow that confiscating land from whites will drive your economy into the ground; that such has been the case in Zimbabwe only reflects more poorly on Mugabe as a man and a leader. Likewise, if whites praise Mandela mainly because he spared them, they may miss part of the point. Clearly, though, Mandela envisioned a future in which whites participated fully in South African prosperity. The African writer Mahmood Mamdani recently held the South African transition as a better model for post-conflict "justice" than the "Nuremberg" model that inspires the International Criminal Court. For Mamdani, the South African model is appropriate for countries where everyone still has to live together, where eliminating one "criminal" portion of the population or permanently separating conflicting groups is not an option. Rather than prosecute the perpetrators of apartheid, South Africa opted for public truth-telling under the cover of a peace arrangement that guaranteed everyone's safety. Mamdani sees this as the best way to stop cycles of revenge, adopting the provocative viewpoint that war should not be seen as a criminal activity but in the Clausewitzian way as an extension of politics by other means. The solution to war in that case is politics, which for Mamdani means recognizing that all sides have interests that need to be addressed, not deciding which side is "guilty." That might not be a good model for all cases -- at least some wars in history might still be seen as criminal conspiracies -- but it makes sense if peace, more than revenge or even justice, is the primary goal. That's what remains to be determined. Mandela gave South Africa at least one generation of peace. The country needed that, but what more does it need? As people answer that question, we'll have a better sense for posterity of Nelson Mandela's legacy.


Anonymous said...

So, given the title, are you assuming that Mandela will be the last "heroic statesmen" ever?

Samuel Wilson said...

The title's in the form of a question that others have been asking. Whether another figure will be revered as Mandela will depend on changing criteria of political heroism -- particularly whether peace remains the highest priority, or if it proves incompatible with justice.