Car­ry­ing on in S. Africa af­ter Man­dela

The Lindsay Post - - COMMENT - GWYNNE DYER — Gwynne Dyer is an in­de­pen­dent jour­nal­ist whose ar­ti­cles are pub­lished in 45 coun­tries.

As I write this Nel­son Man­dela is still with us. He may even still be liv­ing at the end of this year. But this is his fourth hos­pi­tal­iza­tion in six months, and the prog­no­sis for 94-year-old men with per­sis­tent lung in­fec­tions is not good. How will South Africa do with­out him?

In prac­tice, South Africa has been do­ing with­out him for more than a decade — but psy­cho­log­i­cally, it is just com­ing to grips with the re­al­ity that he will soon be gone en­tirely.

For all its many faults and fail­ures, postapartheid South Africa is a mir­a­cle that few ex­pected to hap­pen. Al­though Man­dela re­tired from the pres­i­dency in 1999, 14 years later he is still seen as the man who made the magic work, and some­how the guar­an­tor that it will go on work­ing. If only in some vague and form­less way, a great many peo­ple fear that his death will re­move that safety net.

In the past two weeks, how­ever, the tone of the dis­cus­sion has be­gun to change. On hear­ing that Man­dela had been ad­mit­ted to hos­pi­tal yet again, An­drew Mlan­geni, one of his dear­est friends and once a fel­low-pris­oner on Robben Is­land, said: “It’s time to let him go. The fam­ily must re­lease him, so that God may have his own way with him ... Once the fam­ily re­leases him, the peo­ple of South Africa will fol­low.”

That com­ment had a strong res­o­nance in tra­di­tional African cul­ture, which holds that a very sick per­son can­not die un­til his fam­ily “re­leases” him. They have to give him “per­mis­sion” to die by re­as­sur­ing him that his loved ones will be fine when he’s gone. So South Africans must ac­cept they can get along with­out Man­dela, and then he will be free to go.

Not ev­ery­body be­lieves in this tra­di­tion, but it frames the con­ver­sa­tion in more pos­i­tive and less dis­tress­ing way. Peo­ple can ar­gue about whether or not South Africa is do­ing as well as it should, but they can at least agree that Man­dela got the coun­try safely through the most dan­ger­ous phase of the tran­si­tion, and that they can carry on with the job of build­ing a just and demo­cratic so­ci­ety with­out him.

Ex­cept for Pres­i­dent Robert Mu­gabe of Zim­babwe. Mu­gabe has al­ways re­sented the fact that Man­dela is revered as the fa­ther of his na­tion while he is seen as a vi­cious tyrant who has ru­ined his coun­try. So he seized the op­por­tu­nity of a re­cent in­ter­view to ac­cuse Man­dela of hav­ing failed in his duty to South Africa’s black ma­jor­ity: He’d been too soft on the whites.

“Man­dela has gone a bit too far in do­ing good to the non-black com­mu­ni­ties, re­ally in some cases at the ex­pense of blacks,” the Zim­bab­wean dic­ta­tor said. “That’s be­ing too saintly, too good, too much of a saint.”

Non­sense. What Man­dela and his white ne­go­ti­at­ing part­ner, F.W. De Klerk, were try­ing to avoid in the early 1990s was a civil war that would have killed mil­lions and lasted for a very long time. The 20% white mi­nor­ity were heav­ily armed, and they had nowhere else to go. Their fam­i­lies, for the most part, had been in South Africa for at least a cen­tury.

A set­tle­ment that gave South Africa a peace­ful (and hope­fully pros­per­ous) demo­cratic fu­ture had to be one in which whites still had a fu­ture. You ei­ther make the deal that Man­dela and De Klerk made, in which no­body loses too much, or you sub­mit to a fu­ture that would make Syria’s civil war look like a tea party.

Arch­bishop Des­mond Tutu, talk­ing about Man­dela’s in­evitable death, said last week: “The best me­mo­rial to Nel­son Man­dela would be a democ­racy that was re­ally up and run­ning, a democ­racy in which ev­ery sin­gle per­son in South Africa knew that they mat­tered.”

That is still some dis­tance away, but Man­dela has laid the foun­da­tions. He was the right man for the job: A saint who un­der­stood re­alpoli­tik.

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