At the epic age of 95, the revered father of the new South Africa, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, or simply ‘Madiba’, is finally joining the dust of his beloved homeland. Yet amid the beatification-in-the-making, Mandela leaves behind a country plagued by poverty, violence, disease and corruption. Some thoughts on his passing from a South African-born Jew:
Moses, not the Messiah
Mandela was many things to many people – a man who journeyed through phases and manifestations as manifold as his country’s human mosaic. From a boy of royal blood in the ritual-steeped hills of the Transkei to a silver-tongued activist-turned-militant in seething Soweto, an unbreakable prisoner, a shrewd negotiator, a smiling, unifying president, and finally, in the spirit of every eulogy, a world icon of peace and reconciliation.
He was all of this and more, and the soil of South Africa is wet with the tears of Tata Madiba’s bereaved children – a modern-day savior who parted seas of racial hatred.
Through elephantine self-sacrifice, political dexterity and kindness of heart, Mandela worked a miracle by midwifing a democratic South Africa into being, stemming the bleeding and giving all parents a stake. Not only was it a black and white conflict, but also between Mandela’s African National Congress (ANC) and the Zulu Inkhatha Freedom Party. At the flick of a sjambok, the nation could have become engulfed in a multi-frontal civil war, reduced to a smoldering patchwork of stillborn statelets or worse.
Yet, while Mandela led his flock intact to the gates of equality and shared prosperity, he failed to truly get them in. South Africa remains a chillingly violent, sick and unequal place. Only the Messiah could have dismantled over 300 years of injustice in a paltry five.
Post-Anger and the Rainbow Prophecy
A master of symbolism and inclusion, Mandela prodigiously brought the colors of South Africa together to avoid catastrophic racial Balkanization. Everyone, from the Zulus and the Xhosas and the Tswanas to the Cape coloureds, Indians, Jews, Muslims and, of course, the Afrikaners, were an intrinsic part of the deliciously diverse landscape of his vision.
Mandela had a particular gift for making white people feel part of the new republic. He took tea with Betsie Verwoerd, the widower of Apartheid’s architect, and donned the green and gold Springbok jersey when South Africa won the 1995 Rugby World Cup. While the rainbow-nation analogy might appear clichéd, and divorced from the residual reality of uneasy racial relations, its thinking shepherded, largely peacefully, the most reluctant tribe into the big tent of the country’s future.
Forced to spend nearly two decades imprisoned on a wind-swept island, chipping at limestone by day, and locked like a dog with a bucket-cum-toilet in a concrete box by night, most people would have emerged with a belly full of hatred, ravenous for retribution. Mandela had many reasons to follow this route, yet he chose a more maverick, compassionate path. Rather than driving whites out and filling their farms and mansions with ANC cadres, a free Mandela opened his arms widely and magnanimously to his historic foes. This was one of his most exceptional, Gandhi-like qualities – the ability to rise above his own acute suffering and embrace a policy of forgiveness, as demonstrated most vividly in the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Selling-out socialism and the millions of inconvenient poverty-stricken truths
Revolutionary true believers claim the price of this historic reconciliation was that economic power was left in white hands – that the grand bargain struck between Mandela and his partner-in-transition, F.W. de Klerk, was actually a stinking back-room deal. Intrinsic to the freedom struggle was redistribution of resources, and one of the greatest criticisms of Mandela from leftist circles is that he resisted sweeping nationalization of South African industry and farmland – a fundamental plank of the ANC’s Freedom Charter.
Most notably, Mandela allowed control of the country’s lucrative mines to remain the cash cows of conglomerates like Anglo American. While the fate of neighboring Zimbabwe offers a tragic, cautionary tale of how not to implement large-scale redistribution of resources, many never forgave Mandela for this act of compromise-cum-socialist betrayal. Compounding this complaint was his choice to live his twilight years in Houghton, one of Johannesburg’s poshest and traditionally vanilla suburbs.
Socio-economic disparity on a grand scale remains, a combustible source of festering resentment masterfully used by the likes of Julius Malema, the former president of the ANC Youth League, to mine the deeps veins of anger of those whose lots in life remain dire. Yet simplistic solutions peddled by swindling pyromaniacs run the risk of reducing all the progress, albeit imperfect, made since 1994 to ashes.
Plagues of biblical proportions
From isolation to over-saturation, Mandela was catapulted into the driving seat of a country at the precipice, not in the prime of his life, but as an aging man engaged in paranormal acts of social, political and economic acrobatics.
Despite major advances in black political and workplace empowerment, and a sound record on widening access to water, electricity, roads and education to the masses, contemporary South Africa has one of the highest disparities of wealth and rates of disease, murder and rape in the world. The carnage traverses all racial and socio-economic boundaries – not even babies are spared.
Many of these problems grew to elephantine proportions during Mandela’s presidency, and in terms of raw numbers of dead, the HIV/AIDS epidemic has been most cataclysmic, claiming anywhere from two million lives upwards since the 1990s – including one of Mandela’s own sons. Though it was the apartheid regime that laid the seeds through underfunding for ‘native’ health and education, and decimating family structures through Nazi-like pass laws, once the ANC assumed power, action to curb the soaring infection rate and effectively treat those already afflicted was sluggish.
Openly admitting that he did not do enough to combat HIV/AIDS while in office, Mandela was, however, forcefully vocal on the issue as a private citizen, while his chosen successor, Thabo Mbeki, was busy advocating horseradish and other traditional remedies in place of life-saving anti-retroviral drugs.
Dictator bromances, Jewish connections and the Palestinian question
Other criticisms were lobbed at Mandela, one in particular from conservative western quarters. During the long decades of the anti-apartheid struggle, the ANC forged alliances with many of the world’s national liberation movements, some of which used indiscriminate slaughter of civilians to advance their causes. While not a retributionist, Mandela never forgot who supported his party, and once in power, he made known where his appreciation lay, hosting Fidel Castro and awarding Libya’s then dictator, Muammar Gaddafi, with one of South Africa’s highest honorary orders.
That Mandela was cozy with some dictators does not negate all the good he did. Name one modern US President who is guilt free on this charge, and remember that lionized leaders like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher were apologists for apartheid, justifying their moral blindness by invoking the communist peril.
For many similarly minded South African Jews, Mandela was someone they grew fonder of with age, knowing just how bad things could have been had a Mugabe, not a Madiba, come to power. While most sat largely docile during Apartheid’s heinous reign – not to mention Israel’s sordid alliance with the ruling Afrikaners – many of Mandela’s closest comrades and supporters were Jewish, something he expressed affectionate gratitude for.
And despite his ironclad support for Palestinian independence, Mandela implicitly affirmed the Jewish right to national self-determination through his commitment to a two-state solution, rather than advocating a unitary model like South Africa, in which, given current birth-rates, Jews would eventually become a minority. In a conflict with important divergences yet undeniable similarities, Mandela serves as a powerful example of the mountains that hard compromises and generosity of spirit can move.
Freedom’s floor plan
So, as Madiba graces the Valley of Death, joining the millions of his countrymen who have fallen by bullet, starvation, home invasion or auto-immune destruction, may the blueprint he birthed grow into a palace for all his kaleidoscopic daughters and sons.
Elemental to the wave of sorrow unleashed by his passing is the somber thought that the likes of Mandela may never again grace South Africa. For there rarely arises a prophet like unto Madiba, whom justice and compassion know face to face, a man who offered an exhilarating though fleeting window into an egalitarian technicolor utopia – a Promised Land that may yet prove a mirage.