By: Chriss W. Street
The passing of Nelson Mandela provides an opportunity to reflect on the politics of Africa, where the post-apartheid leader will remain esteemed as a relentless champion of democracy, human rights and the unfinished struggle for freedom. He was the son of a royal family, a lawyer, activist, guerrilla leader, a prisoner on the infamous Robben Island and eventually a President who sought to create a South Africa that transcended race.
Mandela, who died at 95 years of age, was exceptional among Africa’s rulers, because he defied the self-enrichment that has characterized many of the continent’s leaders, from the Republic of the Zaire’s Mobutu Sese Seko to Angola’s Jose Eduardo dos Santos. Self-enrichment was is rife within the African National Congress that has ruled South Africa since 1994. But Mandela remained above the corruption and became only modestly rich. He also shocked the continent by being the only leader in post-colonial Africa to step down in 1999 after just a single term in office. Mandela’s greatest legacy is his transition from fearless guerrilla commander to true President of all South Africa.
Mandela sought to effectively manage the geopolitical limitations of South Africa. It is a country of awash in riches, but the markets for virtually all its products are off-shore. There are diamonds in the West, gold and other mineral resources in the center, and increasingly coal, oil and natural gas in the East. But South Africa was starved for capital when Mandela took over. It badly needed foreign buyers for its industry, mining sector and transportation infrastructure. Under Mandela’s administration, South Africa re-opened to foreign investors and was rewarded with a huge economic recovery.
Mandela fought off communist demands to nationalize industries, because it would have driven away foreign investors. Mandela understood that South Africa was emerging from sanctions and isolation and any hint of nationalizing would have killed confidence in the rule of law. South African industry needed rehabilitation to achieve the economic goals of the impoverished black majority. Mandela and his administration took great pains to assure that economic provisions were fair to domestic and international businesses.
Mandela had a political mandate to reshape his country; but he also understood the country’s limitations. He did not try to erase the colonial institutions that preceded his rule, but instead sought to entrench systems that would enable good governance. He trod a careful path that has helped South Africa to grow and thrive, as a multiracial democracy. Mandela’s life and story are testament to the spirit of courage and endurance in the face of geopolitical imperative. They are also, however, a cautionary tale of the limits of human agency and the power of geography.
Chriss W. Street