For decades, sub-Saharan Africa was ignored by the West because it lacked the strategic significance of Asia or Latin America. As it emerged from colonial rule it became a region of often dysfunctional, bad governments; corrupt bureaucracies; savage tribal warfare; and declining, AIDS-racked populations.
There was one major exception: South Africa. South Africa had its own special problems. It was rich with deposits of gold and diamonds. It had a minority, but substantial, white population that had established an extensive infrastructure of roads, railways, and factories, while building up cities and orderly government. But it also had a majority black African population repressed by the apartheid system.
Enter Nelson Mandela. Mr. Mandela led the anti-apartheid African National Congress, which the white government banned. He was sentenced to life imprisonment and spent 27 years in jail before being released by an enlightened Afrikaner prime minister, F.W. de Klerk, who foresaw apartheid’s demise.
Despite being jailed for more than a quarter century for his beliefs, Mandela emerged with near-saintly compassion for both whites and blacks. When he became president, he preached moderation and demanded that there be no retaliation against whites. He declared that whites were essential for the new South Africa. He outlined his vision for a peaceful, productive, truly multiracial society, setting an example for the world.
Mandela divorced his wife, married again, and retired as a world-renowned elder statesman, continuing to project his hopes for a peaceful South Africa, but detaching himself from the running of government.
Sadly, his first wife, Winnie, was quoted in a London newspaper interview recently as making harsh remarks about Mandela. “He agreed to a bad deal for the blacks,” she said. “Economically we are still on the outside.” The remarks, since denied, raised a firestorm among Mandela’s many supporters in South Africa.
The reality, of course, is that Mandela and Mr. de Klerk were historic icons, ending the misery of apartheid and setting South Africa on a promising multiracial path.
Many believed at the time that South Africa, as the most industrialized country in Africa, would become the powerhouse for the continent, projecting as well a vision of democracy and probity that would be an example for other African nations.
After Mandela, there followed a kind of caretaker presidency by Thabo Mbeki, a Mandela lieutenant, who did not take the AIDS outbreak seriously and mishandled a pathetic attempt to reform the outrageous government in neighboring Zimbabwe. South Africa’s new president is Jacob Zuma, an African National Congress infighter, who has successfully skirted a number of corruption charges. He also has a controversial history, and several simultaneous wives for whom the government is expected to make expensive provision.
Princeton Lyman, former US ambassador to South Africa, says Mr. Zuma will try to satisfy his constituency, which comes from the left, and the nonwhite townships, but that this is hard to do in times of economic downturn. The other concern is Zuma’s dismissive attitude toward checks and balances in the government and the fact that there is no real viable opposition in Parliament.
Meanwhile, although millions of blacks in South Africa still live in shanties without running water and electricity, the government has spent a reported $6 billion on stadiums around the country and other infrastructure to host the World Cup soccer tournament in June.
In ocean-girded Cape Town, a magnificent stadium has been built on the foreshore to provide dramatic TV pictures against the backdrop of Table Mountain. Cape Town is the seat of Parliament, and, if he is able, Mandela will surely want to be at the stadium there. His eye may wander seaward to Robben Island, the detention center where he spent so many years. We must hope, for Africa’s sake, that his sacrifice was not in vain.
John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, worked as a journalist in South Africa for many years. He writes a biweekly column.