from Africa in Transition

Nelson Mandela and Capitalism

December 10, 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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Andrew Ross Sorkin addresses Nelson Mandela’s transformation from a socialist to a capitalist in the December 10 New York Times. Like other African liberation movements, the African National Congress (ANC) long advocated nationalization of much of the economy as essential to addressing the consequences of apartheid.

The evolution of Mandela’s perspective was a highly significant development. Sorkin cites Mandela’s conversations with his biographer, Anthony Sampson, and a newspaper interview by Mandela’s close associate Tito Mboweni, subsequently a governor of the South African Reserve Bank. These sources attribute Mandela’s change of view to conversations with “world leaders” at the 1992 World Economic Forum at Davos. Mboweni, quite credibly, cites Mandela’s conversations with Communist party leaders from China and Vietnam, then in the process of selling off state owned enterprises and inviting in foreign investors, as particularly influencing Mandela. According to Mboweni, “they told him frankly as follows: ‘We are currently striving to privatize state enterprises and invite private enterprise into our economics. We are Communist Party governments, and you are a leader of a national liberation movement. Why are you talking about nationalization?’”

Here, as in other areas, the end of the Cold War and the transformation of the surviving Communist states played an important role in the shaping of Mandela’s and the ANC’s approach to South Africa’s economics and governance. Elsewhere, I have argued that it was the collapse of the Soviet Union that provided a crucial context for South Africa’s negotiated transition to non-racial democracy. Sorkin shows the importance of the new economic policies of China and Vietnam to the reshaping of Mandela’s approach to economics.

Mandela’s view prevailed within the ANC, though there was significant left-wing opposition. There still is, if outside the ANC political establishment. Looking toward the 2014 elections, many South Africans are questioning free-market economics, given South Africa’s slow rate of economic growth, very high levels of unemployment, and the increases in economic inequality. The gap between white and black incomes is greater now than in 1994. However, Mandela’s great achievement was the promotion of racial “reconciliation” in South Africa, with whites accepting the new political dispensation. Mandela’s conversion to free market economics certainly promoted that goal. That may be its greatest significance.

More on:

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