Nelson Mandela: Another `Indispensable Man'

WHO would have thought, just a few years ago, that in 1994 South Africa would be poised to lead the parade of nations seeking to become full and stable democracies? It would be naive to think that the emergent democracy will avoid grievous challenges in the months and years ahead, yet impossibly negative not to marvel at what has so far been advanced.

The politics of the last two centuries is littered with instances where countries have undergone political revolutions that promised individual liberty and political democracy but ended disappointingly short of these goals, if not in their outright denial.

In South Africa, the problem of establishing a successful democracy is compounded by the long, often bitter history of white minority rule. But with the election of Nelson Mandela, South Africa seems to have a real chance. We need to ask how a country that seems so poorly situated could have moved so far, so fast along democracy's road.

Two centuries ago the US started the parade. While this country faced nothing comparable to going from white minority to black majority rule, we had our own special challenges. From 1775-95 we had no working precedents on which to draw. What lessons can aspiring democrats draw from the American experience, and from the South African in the transition Nelson Mandela and Frederik de Klerk have advanced?

Leadership. Especially in this deterministic age, we need to remember that leadership matters. The American transition to constitutional democracy was achieved largely because a gifted group of leaders committed themselves to that goal and consistently pursued it. Likewise, South Africa has been able to progress these past four years because of inspired democratic leadership.

Since the mid-1980s when he initiated secret meetings with the South African government to try to begin negotiations, Mr. Mandela has consistently rejected actions, such as calls for revenge, that would undermine democratic institution building - and has stressed those - consensus-building, a multiracial republic - that are essential to the building process. In this Mr. De Klerk was an able and committed partner.

Example. ``The eyes of Argos are upon me,'' George Washington once complained, ``and no slip will pass unnoticed.'' Like others among the founders, he saw the American experiment as rich with promise but fragile. He recognized early on that this meant his example might well determine the entire experiment's success. De Klerk and Mandela seem equally conscious of the importance of the example they are setting.

This was well illustrated in the debate which the two men held April 14. The exchanges were sometimes sharp. Not once, though, did either depart from normal democratic discourse. At the debate's close, Mandela set the necessary example: ``I think we are a shining example to the entire world,'' he said, ``of people drawn from different racial groups who have a common loyalty, a common love, to their common country ... [W]e have men and women in this country who are honoring the ideals of liberty and democracy ... and, in spite of my criticism of Mr. de Klerk, sir, you are one of those I rely upon....''

E pluribus unum. Mandela has proved himself a ``one nation'' democrat. ``I therefore now no longer attach any value to any kind of ethnicity,'' he has said. During the recent campaign, he asserted that ``all religions, customs, and ways of life must be treasured in this country.'' Democracy couldn't have been preserved in multi-ethnic America without defending the idea of a new nation born from disparate parts. It can't be maintained in South Africa without that.

The loyal opposition. Democracy is a system for processing conflict peacefully. The opposition as well as those in power must play the democratic game. The transition through which De Klerk has led the National Party is almost as critical as that through which Mandela has guided the ANC. During the April 14 debate, De Klerk stated: ``Color in the National Party's vocabulary has become unimportant. What is important is: What do we believe in? We believe in free enterprise. We believe in good family values. We believe in real peace. We believe in reconciliation.'' All that may seem a hypocritical disregard of the party's history, but it must become its present and future if democracy is to thrive.

The indispensable man. James Flexner's biography of George Washington calls him ``the indispensable man.'' No one who admires Washington's achievements as I do can easily refer to a leader as ``another Washington'' - the compliment is too high to be casually applied. Yet Mandela appears to be ``another Washington'': He is employing unique ``charismatic legitimacy'' to buttress new democratic institutions. He sees his task as not primarily the destruction of an old order, but the building of a new one. And, like Washington, Mandela is that unusual and compelling blend of conservative and revolutionary. He recognizes that establishing a stable new democracy requires respect for all those national traditions not inimical to the end, even while it breaks decisively with the past.

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