The Politics of Language, Identity, and Race

In South Africa, Nelson Mandela refuses to turn the tables on his onetime Afrikaner oppressors

By , Mass.

ASTUTE leadership is critical to good governance, particularly in the developing world. It is among the many key variables that distinguish countries that succeed politically, socially, and economically from those that fail. Nowhere is this factor of individual leadership making more of a difference than in post-apartheid South Africa.

President Nelson Mandela is leading all of his peoples, black and white, with a remarkable practical vision. Having endured 27 years in prison, he might have sought revenge. He might have sought unhindered black power. He might have sought to shift white wealth rapidly into black hands.

Instead, President Mandela's first 20 months at South Africa's helm have demonstrated the virtues of a tempered vision. From his initial agreement to head a government of national unity with the very whites who had oppressed him and his people to this year's insistence on the rights of minorities, Mr. Mandela has practiced the politics of inclusion with a passion that borders on the evangelical.

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In sports-mad South Africa, Mandela could do no wrong after he publicly embraced South Africa's victorious (white Afrikaner) rugby captain, feted the triumphant (white English-speaking) cricket team, and walked off the field hand in hand with the country's (black) African Nations' Cup soccer winners.

But those were easy, if charismatic, gestures. More recently, Mandela took a tougher stand in favor of Afrikaans, the language of his minority oppressors. In this case, as in so many others, Mandela could have ducked.

At the beginning of the year, the Parliament's Joint Standing Defense Committee, which is dominated by Mandela's African National Congress (ANC), declared that the South African National Defense Force (embracing army, air force, and navy) would henceforth use English (rather than Afrikaans, Zulu, or Xhosa) as the sole language of command and instruction.

The demotion of Afrikaans

Since the 1950s, when the Afrikaner-led National Party gained control of South Africa's government and ousted English-speakers from the upper ranks of the defense force, Afrikaans has increasingly been the main military language.

In today's black-infused defense force, Afrikaners still occupy many of the higher ranks, as well as those middle levels where commands are executed and training occurs. Without the army's middle-ranking Afrikaners, South Africa would have great difficulty absorbing and integrating former ANC and other African cadres.

When Parliament's Defense Committee produced its white paper, and, in effect, demoted the use of Afrikaans in the military, Afrikaners inside and outside the defense force howled. Simultaneously, the state's multichannel television corporation indicated that it was reducing Afrikaans from an equal medium with English to a ''tribal'' language having to take its place alongside Venda, Tswana, Sotho, Zulu, Xhosa, Shangaan, and other indigenous tongues. At the beginning of the year, too, the Speaker of Parliament removed all portraits of Afrikaners from the walls of the House of Assembly.

Mandela not pleased

Afrikaners waxed indignant as Africans cheered. As a language goes so goes a nationality, the Afrikaners complained. Africans agreed, and were pleased.

Mandela was not. He rebuked the defense committee. He told the defense force to ignore the committee's order. To leaders of an Afrikaner women's organization whom he invited to his official residence in Pretoria, the president said he had informed defense committee members that ''If you want this country to be reduced to ashes, you must tamper with the language of a group.''

Mandela believes strongly in inclusion. He promised the women, and told the South African press, that reducing the use of Afrikaans by fiat was on neither his nor the ANC's agenda. Startling many of his closest followers, he denied that he wanted to see Afrikaans disappear as the medium of instruction in schools and universities.

Any other leader but Mandela might have bowed to the popular will. In almost any other country in the developing world, minority-bashing is politically promising, if not enjoyable. It is doubly ''legitimate'' when the minority is a former oppressor.

But Mandela has different and more-courageous ideas for South Africa. He wants to build a nation despite the brutal past. Doing so, for him, means respecting the sensitivities of those very persons and groups who never respected Africans. That, in the context of the developing world, is leadership of a high and visionary order.

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