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Think Again: Nelson Mandela

Author: John Campbell, Ralph Bunche Senior Fellow for Africa Policy Studies
December 6, 2013


"Mandela's Legacy Is Unblemished."

False. For most of the world, Nelson Mandela is a hero of the struggle against apartheid and for nonracial democracy. The election of Mandela, the father of democratic South Africa, as president in 1994 marked both the end of a racist regime and the country's embrace of racial reconciliation. As such, Mandela was a figure of hope not only for Africa but for the rest of the world -- which was still very much struggling with racism and underdevelopment. Mandela articulated for South Africans of all races his democratic vision and, with then-President F.W. de Klerk, shepherded the country toward nonracial elections and a new constitution.

But there is another side to the story. Most of the commonly accepted narratives about the new South Africa are based on the misconception that apartheid was ended by a "freedom struggle" led by Mandela and his presidential successor, Thabo Mbeki, with international sanctions playing an important role. The less heroic reality is that apartheid's demise was the result of a political deal between advocates of change and the white establishment, led by de Klerk. This deal, enshrining property rights and the rule of law, largely preserved the economic privileges enjoyed by white South Africans. The anti-apartheid resistance, both violent and nonviolent, never posed a serious challenge to the country's security services (though it could make townships ungovernable). As a result, the final bargain reflected that balance of power, and the wholesale reconstruction of the economy to right the wrongs of apartheid was never a realistic option.

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