Mandela Was No Myth

January 22, 2014 Topic: The PresidencyPolitics Region: South Africa

Mandela Was No Myth

A reply to R.W. Johnson on the late South African leader's complicated legacy.

In his article entitled “ The Mandela Myth ,” Professor R.W. Johnson, in my respectful view, focused a bit too much on the negative regarding the late Nelson Mandela. A better title for his article to begin with might have been something along the lines of a “flawed hero,” which is how he, in 2000, characterized Tanzania’s founding father – Julius K. Nyerere . That is because Nelson Mandela was, like all of us, a human being who adapted himself to adverse circumstances he faced in life.

Consider first the historical conditions that helped make Mandela a man of the political left. He came of age in a South Africa, with a white-dominated government that faced extensive opposition among the country’s white population for supporting the Allied cause in World War II. There is an interesting historical background, documented by the Library of Congress, here.

Whites (i.e., people of European ancestry), then as now, comprised less than 10 percent of the South African population. And Afrikaners, an ethnic group descended from Dutch settlers of a region in the Cape of Good Hope’s vicinity under the auspices of the quasi-governmental Dutch East India Company between 1652 and 1795, still constitute the majority of that population. Over subsequent years, many Afrikaners migrated toward modern-day South Africa’s interior and established prosperous farming communities that laid the foundations for economic and, consequently, political control. But this South African variant on manifest destiny was resisted by both native peoples like Mandela’s Xhosa and the Zulu, and by nineteenth-century British colonial encroachments. Indeed, British annexation of numerous Boer republics resulted in the First Boer War (1880-81) and Second Boer War (1899-1902), the latter of which was characterized by brutal British counterinsurgency tactics and the use of concentration camps.

Afrikaners thus resented successful British pressure for South Africa, a self-governing British dominion after 1910, to attack and conquer German Southwest Africa – which would become modern-day Namibia and remain under South African administration until 1990 – during World War I. South Africa attained full independence in 1931, with a combination of white economic power and restrictions on black land ownership securing white political dominance. But the Allied cause in World War II could not overcome so many Afrikaners’ siege mentality. The political party of South Africa’s prime minister during World War II – Afrikaner Jan Christiaan Smuts, a general and former Boer commando who helped obtain South African independence from Great Britain, but still served in the World War I and World War II British Imperial War Cabinets – broke apart over the issue of reconciliation between Afrikaners and English-speaking whites. And while South African soldiers fought and died alongside their Allied comrades, Smuts even had to cope with domestic unrest caused by the Ossewabrandwag, a pro-Nazi terrorist organization modeled after the Nazi German Sturmabteilung (more commonly known as the Brownshirts). Including in its ranks future apartheid-era prime ministers B.J. Vorster and P.W. Botha, the Ossewabrandwag discouraged enlistment in the South African armed forces and engaged in acts of sabotage.

The opposing sentiments Smuts faced contributed to the founding of the National Party, which, in 1948, under the leadership of D.F. Malan, defeated Smuts’s electoral bid to retain his prime ministership. Malan’s government then legally institutionalized the apartheid system, developing rights for whites that far exceeded those for blacks and the country’s other ethnic groups, ignoring Smuts’s ultimately correct skepticism, in spite of previous support for racial segregation, about whether such a system could last.


Enter, then, Nelson Mandela and the rest of the antiapartheid movement, facing the essence of political injustice – the suppression of a vast popular majority by a tiny minority whose leaders would not compromise on anything. This nascent movement could count on no Western European support during a time when countries like the United Kingdom and France were worried about adjusting their foreign policies to a post-colonial era, if not the outright preservation of unsustainable empires. And who would the United States have been to criticize apartheid in the time before Mandela’s initial imprisonment in 1962, when not a few U.S. states had their own similar “Jim Crow” laws ? True, the U.S., during this time, was blessed with three presidents – Harry Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and John F. Kennedy – whom, historians tend to agree, furthered the cause of civil rights more often than not. But neither of these presidents – who are today remembered for leading an American golden age of sorts – had the degree of diplomatic tactlessness necessary to lecture allies on controversial domestic practices in which the U.S. was itself engaged, even if they themselves questioned those practices. Perhaps if these presidents had acted more aggressively against racial discrimination at home (e.g., President Truman doing more than just desegregating the armed forces), then the U.S. would have had the credibility to address apartheid much earlier than it eventually did.