Even in these celebrity-obsessed times, the name Nelson Mandela attracts near-universal public approval.
His is an inspirational story. As a young man he was a political agitator, involved with the African National Congress, an organisation then committed to armed terrorist insurrection. Following thirty years in captivity Nelson Mandela was released and within a short time had become his country’s first black President. Most commendably, he has uttered not one word of bitterness about his treatment. Instead, reconciliation and a keen eye to the future of his homeland, South Africa, has been the watchword of his every public action in the past decade or so.
Nelson Mandela is a truly remarkable individual. He is, in every sense of the word, a statesman on the international stage. His global reputation means that all aspiring political leaders are keen to be associated with him ? it is no surprise that over the past six months both Gordon Brown and David Cameron have paid visits to his South African home in order to set up photo-opportunities in his presence.
Equally, we should not entirely ignore the record of his African National Congress political movement, which has remained in office for an unbroken period since the end of the apartheid era in 1994. In truth its record does not augur well for the future of South Africa. Whilst criticism is currently muted, once Nelson Mandela passes away, there is likely to be more even-handed analysis of its activities.
In particular, the institutionalised policy of affirmative entitlement, coupled with confiscation by the state of corporate assets in an attempt to right the wrongs of the apartheid era has resulted in driving many talented young white people from South Africa. Moreover, this arbitrary confiscation policy makes many potential investors in South Africa understandably jittery. As a result, much needed investment has gone instead to seemingly safer places in the developing world such as India and China.
I spent ten days in South Africa in early 2004, a period which coincided with a national election in the country. It seemed to me then that there were already the first signs of a division in the broad-ranging political coalition between the ANC and the trades unions, which has hitherto guaranteed them a firm grip on power
Nevertheless, the peaceful transition from apartheid to black rule in South Africa was a remarkable achievement. Nelson Mandela must rightfully take much of the praise, but the immense contribution former President F W de Klerk has often been ignored. His vision and foresight played an important role in the peaceful transition. Without de Klerk’s statesmanship, South Africa’s transition to democracy would have been impossible. He is a great, unsung South African hero.
The experience of South Africa contrasts greatly to its northern neighbour, Zimbabwe. In 1965 Rhodesia (as that country was then called) also under apartheid rule, made a unilateral declaration of independence from the British Commonwealth. As a result, the then British government imposed strict economic sanctions on the country ? in stark contrast with South Africa. It is worth reflecting that hard line sanctions (which many were demanding) from the West against South Africa at that time might have led that country down the same route as present day Zimbabwe, currently one of the most poverty-stricken regimes in the world.
I believe it is dangerous to view even recent historical events from today’s stand point, in trying to make point, whatever the desire to make a break with the past. However, in my mind the absurd spectacle of Tony Blair apologising for British government action after the 1845 Irish potato famine yet refusing to do so over his own actions in taking his country to war in Iraq in 2003 over a false prospectus, does little credit to politics as a whole.
During the 1980s, the British government, under Margaret Thatcher, was critical of the potentially violent means the African National Congress was willing to adopt to achieve its goals. That stance was understandable at the time and by standing up to the ANC then we probably eased the path towards reconciliation after the end of apartheid. Indeed, if we are to rewrite history, the most questionable actions of the Thatcher government in southern Africa affairs took place in Zimbabwe. Having negotiated a peaceful handover in the first year of her premiership, the British government then stood by and allowed Zimbabwe’s first elected black president, Bishop Muzorewa, to be outmanoeuvred by the more hard line Robert Mugabe, whose dictatorial rule has now ruined a formerly prosperous and mineral-rich country. The lesson is clear ? terrorists should never be appeased.