Life lessons from Mandela

Published: Sunday | December 15, 2013 Comments 0
Nelson Mandela
Nelson Mandela

Ian Boyne, Contributor

With all the adulation being heaped on Nelson Mandela for his historic and far-reaching achievement of peacefully ending white rule in South Africa, whites, who constitute only nine per cent of the population, still own 76 per cent of the country's stock exchange shares. Average annual incomes for white South Africans are five times higher than for black South Africans.

Fully 60 per cent of South Africa's incomes go to the top 10 per cent, while the bottom 50 per cent live below the poverty line. South Africa's unemployment rate is above 25 per cent, and among the young, it is twice that figure. Life expectancy for black people in South Africa has actually declined since the ending of apartheid, though largely because of the devastating impact of AIDS (one of the failures of the Mandela presidency).

Life expectancy for black South Africans is actually 50 years - yes, 50 years - compared to 70 years for the average white South African. (In 1990, it was 62 years for the average black person). While AIDS is a significant factor in low life expectancy rates for black South Africans, poor medical care, inadequate education and poverty also account for that alarmingly low rate.


Political freedom has been won and a racial bloodbath was avoided, with South African being hailed as model for racial reconciliation, but a 2012 survey found that 25 per cent of South Africans see the gap between rich and poor as the most important social fault line, with only 13 per cent identifying race.

South Africa has the distinction of having the highest crime rate in the world and is one of the most corrupt states on Earth.

Yet, on the other hand, South Africa is a highly prosperous African economy, part of the vaunted BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), which has been attracting significant foreign direct investments. It is following the Washington Consensus model, and Mandela himself welcomed the International Monetary Fund with open arms and backtracked from his earlier intention to nationalise corporations.

There are many South Africans for whom life has changed very little since the days of apartheid, apart from the fact that their constitution has changed. But economically, not much has changed. There are a number of South Africans who feel betrayed. Mandela is still revered by them, but they wish he had inspired more practical change in their day-to-day lives.

There are also critics of the Left who pour cold water on Mandela's achievements in South Africa, pointing to some of the facts outlined in this article and others which show that economic power still rests in the hands of the white minority and foreign capitalists.

But Mandela's legacy is safe and secure: It can withstand the severest scrutiny and the most rigorous examination.

One simply has to look to Zimbabwe to see how Mugabe has mismanaged that country's independence and has squandered the trust of his people. Nothing must allow us to underestimate the enormity of Mandela's achievement in creating a non-racial, democratic South Africa, which has truly served as a model of racial harmony and reconciliation.

Yes, the economic liberation has not come for the black masses as yet, and the benefits of political and racial freedom have not yet been translated into concrete economic advancement for the masses. But they could still have been deprived of that and end up being far worse with a society at perpetual war with itself, a river of blood, and foreign and local investors scared off.

Nelson Mandela has bequeathed to South Africa a foundation on which can be built the economic and social prosperity which the black masses need. It took extraordinary skill, incredible courage and deep emotional mastery to have forged the unity and give-and-take which resulted in the racial reconciliation that has been the South African experience. The adoration bordering on veneration, the universal outpouring of goodwill and love toward this magnificent human being is all fully deserved. Nelson Mandela represents the best in us. He is our better self - the person we wished we could be. He is a true hero, a genuine role model.

One of the striking things about Mandela is his appeal to every shade of the ideological spectrum. I have read right-wing extremist publications which have praised him since his death, forced to agree that he turned his back on an easy path of recrimination and revenge. There was nothing inevitable about his path of forgiveness and peace which he took. It was the road less travelled. Even Marxists who have pointed to the many problems which beset capitalist South Africa still concede that Mandela was an extraordinary leader.


Interestingly and incidentally, Mandela did not profess Christianity. Indeed, he seemed quite indifferent to any religion at all. But he clearly was a spiritual person. His life proves that one need not be a Christian to be magnanimous, compassionate, loving and forgiving. One does not have to be a Christian to be a good person. Nor does one have to be religious to be touched by humanitarian values.

It is noteworthy that many politicians who have professed Christianity have been hateful, vengeful, bitter and oppressive, while a humanitarian like Mandela, who was not even certain about an afterlife, could have lived so selflessly and so compassionately.

Mandela's exposure to Marxism and his closeness to communists made a positive impact on him and steered him away from a narrow racialism which could have been crippling. His early association with members of the South African Communist Party helped to forge a cosmopolitan outlook which helped him to see class oppression as partly explaining white racism, rather than seeing apartheid in purely racial terms. (I am not saying racism can have no independent existence of class, but pried away from class, a focus on race can be jaundiced.)

There were white communists fighting alongside African National Congress (ANC) black nationalists against white racism. Mandela himself, in that famed four-hour speech given at his trial in 1964, said: "Today, I am attracted to the idea of a classless society, an attraction which springs, in part, from my Marxist reading and, in part, from my admiration of the structure and organisation of early African societies in this country. The land, then the main means of production, belonged to the tribe. There were no rich or poor and there was no exploitation."

I admire Nelson Mandela, for his life embodied so many ideals. He was the quintessential human being. He had virtues too sadly lacking in other leaders and revolutionaries. He had a generosity of spirit, a civility, a deep respect for other human beings - even when they were bitter enemies. He had an emotional mastery that was truly astounding. He befriended his jailers and treated them with dignity. Mandela did not believe that because you were fighting oppression and injustice, you had to be hard, crude, belligerent and irascible. He knew one could be gentle yet firm in conviction. That one could compromise yet still hold relentlessly to fundamental principles.

Discourtesy and rudeness were never justified as necessary means of getting attention or calling out enemies. He knew it was easier to catch flies with honey than with vinegar. And his methods worked. Yes, he was helped by the armed struggle of the ANC, the sanctions, the sporting boycotts, the disinvestments, the international diplomatic isolation and pressure on South Africa.

He was also facilitated - as he was hindered - by the Cold War and the invaluable support of the Russians and the Cubans. South Africa was an important arena in the global struggle between the Western powers and the then Soviet Union.

Mandela didn't do it alone, and we have to be true to history. But let no one downplay the moral force of this one man, Nelson Mandela. He was a human catalyst, a tour de force, a colossus. He demonstrated courage to first risk the ire of his suspicious ANC colleagues by holding talks with his enemies. Only his psychological security and self-confidence could facilitate his boldness to privately negotiate with his enemies.

Yet he was always very clear about his non-negotiable principles. He could have been out of jail a full decade earlier had it not been for his unflinching devotion to negotiation on his own terms. He would not sell out his people for his own personal liberty.

Marxists, because of their materialist dogma, downplay the moral force of ideas - mere superstructure in their view. But individuals make difference. And Nelson Mandela certainly did.

Mandela was a master strategist and tactician. He was a superb politician. He understood the mind and heart of his enemies. He studied them. He mastered their language, literally and otherwise, and he was able to use their own logic against them. Nelson Mandela was one of the greatest humans beings who ever lived.

He belongs to the world. He was a supreme intellectual and philosopher who cherished the life of the mind. The famed Oxford-educated British journalist, Anthony Sampson, who had been friends with Mandela since the 1950s and who did his authorised biography, wrote in an article on London's Observer newspaper on February 18, 1996 ('The Graduates of Robben Island'): "More important, he and his closest colleagues established a pattern of behaviour which influenced nearly all the other political prisoners, to treat the island not as a place of bitter constraint and wasted lives, but as an opportunity for constant intellectual debate and political education."

Continued Sampson in that enlightening piece: "Talking to Robben Islanders ... and reading their recollections, I've come to realise how far they form a distinctive elite with a special self-respect and discipline ... . They reminisce about it as if it were a public school or a guards barracks, but with a more intellectual background and idealism ... with much more time to develop their minds and memories."

The story of Nelson Mandela's life - of his adversities, traumas and difficulties - is the stuff of which heroes' lives are made. Would that some of us would truly be touched by this indescribably great man and go and do likewise.

Ian Boyne is a veteran journalist. Email feedback to and

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