How Mandela Made South Africa a Unified Nation
by Gwydion M. Williams
Post-Apartheid South Africa stands alone as a case of successful nation-building in the 1990s. It must have helped a lot that US influence was weak. From the 1980s onwards they have blighted wherever they tried to help. (Even accepting that they were trying to help rather than to disrupt, which is moot). I’d also assert, that another major reason for South Africa’s relative success in a highly risky political transition was thanks to the political background of leaders like Mandela. African Nationalists who learned the basics of politics from the South African Communist Party.
This isn’t the message you’d get from Invictus, of course. Invictus is a 2009 biographical sports drama film directed by Clint Eastwood, based on a book called Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Made the Nation.[A] It tells the remarkable story of how Mandela went against radicals in his own party and insisted that the new government should accept the Springboks rugby team as a national team, even though it was overwhelmingly white with just one mixed-race player at the top level.
I wrote everything apart from this paragraph and the next while Mandela was still alive, though unwell. I see no need to change it now. I’ve also not followed the media’s prolonged wallow in Mandela-trivia now that the man is safely dead. But if anyone knows whether the Communist Party training was mentioned, I’d be interested to hear about it.
I’d also suggest that those who were part of the struggle from the beginning now get together and make a collection called “People Who Hated Mandela“. Ignore the outright racists, who have at least had the decency to be consistent, and have also been marginalised. Go after the hypocrites, who probably include a lot of leading Tories and US Republicans.
In its dying decades, European Leninism resolutely distanced itself from the ‘Stalinist’ politics that had actually worked, while not really coming to terms with its own past. But in South Africa, it retained elements of its original vigour. Mandela made a realistic estimate that it was better to take over the existing state structures intact than try to smash them. There was a real danger of ethnic splits, black against blacks of different tribal groups as well as black against coloured and white. It’s happened often enough in other African countries. It has so far been largely avoided in South Africa, because the African National Congress unites most of the major groups.
The sports boycott that had been applied since the 1960s had been an effective weapon, it seems. As one Afrikaner put it, “The ANC’s policy of international sports isolation, especially rugby isolation, was very painful to us Afrikaners. Psychologically it was a cruel blow, because rugby was one terrain where we felt as a small nation that we could hold our heads high. Preventing us from playing rugby with the rest of the world turned out to be a hugely successful level of political influence.”[B]
It also seems that the start of the Soviet collapse encouraged South African president F. W. de Klerk to seek a settlement. “The fall of the Berlin Wall, which had happened barely two months earlier, offered grounds to believe that, whatever happened in South Africa, communism would never again be viable, whether in Eastern Europe or South Africa.”[C]
I’m not sure the book is right on that. One has to wonder about the assassination of Chris Hani in 1993: he was leader of both the South African Communist Party and the ANC’s armed wing. He had supported negotiations but might have been a rival later. Or would have been a plausible successor: he was 24 years younger than Mandela and might have made a difference in the longer run. His killing was apparently by a lone right-winger, but is suspected of being plotted by the South African right. I’d wonder if it didn’t come from the USA, taking the long view and willing to risk seeing South Africa dissolve into chaos as long as it didn’t get an effective and hostile government. But since the book doesn’t go into the matter, I won’t take it further for now.
South Africa did drift towards chaos in the transition to majority rule. All things considered, I think Mandela made the right choice in going for a gradual transition. The USA after the Soviet collapse was looking for another war: it ended up as Iraq and then Afghanistan along with a behind-the-scenes role in trashing Yugoslavia. It could easily have been South Africa as a battleground instead. It does have a depressingly high level of violence and crime, but also the possibility of improvement, thanks to Mandela.
Invictus – book and film – centres on the Springboks rugby team, their progress in the Rugby World Cup which was held in post-apartheid South Africa. Mandela chose to make it an element in building national unity, which was wise. Likewise he accepted there would be no revenge or punishment – of course the white South Africans still had the USA as their ‘roof’, their super-powerful protector.
History continues. The ANC rules, but has viable internal democracy. Mandela was succeeded as President by Thabo Mbeki, who was probably not Mandela’s first choice. Mbeki in turn has been succeeded by Jacob Zuma, definitely not Mbeki’s choice but the clear winner. South Africa moves on, and has joined BASIC, a block with Brazil, India and China as champions of developing nations. In sport, rugby is still mostly white, with a growing number of coloured (mixed-race) and now the occasional black African.[D] There is reasonable hope for the future.
[A] Carlin, John. Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Made the Nation.
[B] Invictus. Page 66, Atlantic Books edition of 2009.
[C] Ibid., page 76.