from Africa in Transition

Nelson Mandela and American Hopes

December 6, 2013

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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

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In an Expert’s Brief I published yesterday, I reflected on Nelson Mandela’s achievements as the father of the democratic, non-racial South Africa that replaced the odious and repressive apartheid state. A lawyer himself–one of the first Blacks called to the South African bar–Mandela was devoted to the rule of law.

Once in office, his governance was characterized by racial reconciliation, which he shrewdly promoted through the use of symbols. Like President Obama, he sought “teachable moments.” For example, he publicly supported the predominantly white national rugby team, he took tea with Betsie Verwoerd, the widow of Hendrik Verwoerd, the chief architect of apartheid. He avoided African National Congress and Black African triumphalism.

Beyond his achievements in South Africa, Mandela became something of a secular saint for many Americans who knew little of the complexities of South African politics and the need for compromise (especially with white domination of the economy) if apartheid were to be dismantled. Americans responded to his warm and inclusive personality. His emphasis on reconciliation and non-racialism overshadowed his association with such dubious figures as Fidel Castro and Muammar al-Qaddafi. For many Americans, he was the embodiment of our own, still incomplete, aspirations for non-racial democracy.

Americans love foreign heroes. Winston Churchill was more popular in the United States than in Britain. So, too, was Margaret Thatcher. There are criticisms of Nelson Mandela in South Africa, muted during this period of national mourning. Chiefly they state that he did not do enough to address Black poverty and inequality. For nearly all Americans, however, there will be only praise and affection for Nelson Mandela.

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