#Mandela: “The role of the leader is to understand the anxieties of his people and do something about it.”

David McWilliams on how the Mandela deal worked for South Africa

When I asked him how the whole thing was working and whether there was any truth in the whites’ suggestion that the blacks were particularly tolerant even after everything that had occurred during white rule, he grinned and said: “They pretend it never happened and we pretend to forgive them.”

These sentiments could have come directly from that other brilliant hero to South Africans, Mahatma Gandhi, who memorably said of reconciliation: “The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.”

Mandela understood this and knew that it was not, and still is not, in the gift of millions of poor Africans to forgive, but that there had to be a mechanism to deal with the past.

This type of leadership, the ability to understand not just your own people but to have the authority to bring your enemies with you, is one of the many extraordinary attributes that Mandela displayed at a critical juncture.

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  • In the article neither of these quotes are ascribed to Mandela but to some black guy in a meeting and to JK Galbraith and to be honest they seem quite shallow reflections on what happened in South Africa (at a critical juncture) or the relevance of Mandela’s legacy to the political or economic realities that emerged after the ending of apartheid.

    To an extent the flinging around of superlatives and retrofitted memories and reflections of the key moments and the extent of the claiming of “I was in the presence of…” from all sorts of media luvvies is gratuitous. I am certain most people can make their own interpretations of his legacy without it being minced through the filter of whoevers own discipline (from fashion to music to politics to economics to liberations strugglers, to sports people)

    It’s unedifying.

  • Alias

    “Over the intervening years I have visited South Africa a number of times and remain shocked by just how much of the country’s wealth the white population has managed to hold on to without massive social upheaval.” – David McWilliams

    And the penny still didn’t drop…

    Mandela was a man we can do business with – meaning that he could be used to dismantle the system of political apartheid while leaving the system of economic apartheid intact. The former system was put in place to support the latter system.

    The West and its corporations went to South Africa to extract the resources and wealth from it. The whites ran the region in their own interests and in the interests of the West and its corporations, and it was always assumed that blacks would not. Hence the denial of self-determination to them.

    Mandela promised ‘parity of esteem’ to them in his famous ‘speech from the dock’. At the same time he promised the blacks that their country’s wealth would be restored to them, e.g. nationalisation would occur, wealth would be confiscated via taxation, etc. That was all reversed without the agreement of the blacks – much like the Shinners led the sheep into a settlement that perfectly suited the powers-that-be, so did Mandela.

    Both were steered in ‘the right direction’ by those powers. Well, just as blacks have rights to their property so too do the whites have the same rights under parity of esteem – excellent result, of course, when you own most of the wealth and are delighted to hold onto it.

  • “The West and its corporations went to South Africa to extract the resources and wealth from it. The whites ran the region in their own interests and in the interests of the West and its corporations, and it was always assumed that blacks would not. Hence the denial of self-determination to them.”


    It’s a bit more complicated than that. The West in the form of Britain was already in South Africa from 1802 when he won the Cape Colony from the Netherlands in the Napoleonic wars. The Afrikaners, settlers of Dutch, German, and French Protestant extraction who had cut themselves off from Europe, went into the interior in the 1830s to settle what were until recently the Orange Free State and Transvaal provinces of South Africa. They left because they didn’t want to live under British rule after Britain outlawed slavery and didn’t provide them with compensation. The first mineral discoveries were diamonds in Kimberley in 1869 and then in fluvial gold in the Transvaal in the early 1880s. Britain annexed Kimberley to the Cape. It had annexed the Transvaal in 1877 but the Transvaal broke free in 1881–two years before gold was discovered. Starting in the late 1880s after a gold reef was discovered at Witwatersrand in 1885 where Johannesburg is today, the Boer republic in the Transvaal was flooded with British and European miners. After Britain provoked the Boer War in 1899 and defeated the Boers over three years, they then consolidated their rule by devolving power to Afrikaner leaders who were willing to become part of the British Empire.

    The process that you argue took place at the end of the 20th century with the black majority took place throughout the first half of the 20th century with Afrikaners. After the Peace of Vereeniging in May 1902 there was a fifty-year struggle between co-opted Afrikaners who along with English-speaking whites supported the British Empire, and Afrikaner nationalists. This may now with Mandela’s death take place between co-opted black nationalists and black radicals.

    But the reason that the Dutch and then the British first got involved in South Africa was the importance of the Cape of Good Hope in controlling the sea route from Europe to India. Later when American conservatives in the 1980s discussed the importance of South Africa in the context of the Cold War it was not only, or even mainly, the importance of the minerals in the soil of South Africa but the oil that went around the Cape from the Middle East to Europe and America.

  • For a better understanding of how the economic destiny of South Africa was secured following the elections of 2004 look up the Mont Fleur Scenarios. This process was the one that moved the heretofore economically communist ANC into being a full blown neo liberal party. They even produced a dramatic document called GEAR as a roadmap on how to do it. Clearly a key part of that process was to enable a gradual transition of wealth to create a black middle class and largely as happened in Northern Ireland with the free education afforded to Catholics in the 40’s and 50’s, a black middle class has sprung up as they graduate from Universities.

    The use of quotas in public tendering and on PLC boards has led to some strange bedfellows but the remaining risk is that of land ownership and the prospect of a Mugabe-type land grab is still on the agenda.

    Still the place is deeply unequal but is a very different place to 20 years ago.

  • Yes there are deep inequalities, perhaps overall worse than it was 20 years ago. But a significant reason may be the rise of a large black and brown middle class. And millions have been provided with running water and electricity. Their democracy is only 20 years old and they are moving upwards overall. We can only guess at all our futures. What will happen to the USA in a few decades when they finally run out of readily available water?

  • @Alias,

    Here is a link to a story about how Mandela became converted to capitalism.

  • DoppiaVu

    I was immediately struck by how applicable that Gandhi quote is to the current situation in NI.

    “The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.”

    So we have a politics dominated by DUP/SF, both of whom retain power by demonising the other tribe, selectively plundering our recent history to remind their followers of why they can’t trust themmuns. Both sides keep their communities weak and exploit that weakness for electoral advantage.

    A stable, workable society in NI will never happen until their is either forgiveness, or at the very least a collective will to leave the past in the past. And that is true, regardless of whether NI resides within a British or Irish state.

    The longer the DUP/SF carve-up continues, the longer we can expect the poison of the past to infect the post-troubles generation and society at large.

  • Greenflag

    David McWilliams article rings very true . I can’t imagine any other South African leader other than Mandela managing the transition from apartheid to a normal democracy during that critical decade . Sooner or later though the current South African Government will need higher rates of economic growth and a more equal distribution of incomes and a much larger South African black middle class if it is to truly become the rainbow nation and put to rest any possibility of civil unrest or worse .

    Whether modern capitalism can deliver the goods remains to be seen . Certainly the financial services led capitalist model will do for South Africa what it has done for many other developing and developed countries -nothing .

    As Americans struggle with trying to get their too big to fail banks to accept necessary reform and regulation via the Volcker Act -South Africans and many others will be looking to see whether the USA can deliver for it’s own people never mind South Africa .

  • Mc Slaggart


    “/SF, both of whom retain power by demonising the other tribe”

    It is an interesting view of sf. Most nationalist think they are not doing enough on the issue of parades and flags.

    Do you have examples of their actions which support your claim.

  • Seamuscamp

    “both of whom retain power by demonising the other tribe”

    This seems to indicate that the differences in NI society are the result of the actions of two political parties. As if the parties elect the voters. Alas that is a false premise. Parties reflect the perceptions of the voters – perhaps false perceptions. But if they are false it is because the voters want the false perceptions to be true. You get the politicians you vote for. The reality is that SF and SDLP are not DUP or UU or TUV; and vice-versa. The Alliance is an irrelevance – just look at their policy documents.

  • @Alias,

    Re the nature of the 1962 UN boycott that you mentioned on the other thread, here is what Ha’Aretz diplomatic correspondent Chemi Shalev wrote about it:

    “When the United Nations passed its first non-binding resolution calling for a boycott of South Africa in 1962, it was staunchly opposed by a bloc of Western countries, led by Britain and the United States.”

    See the words non-binding or voluntary, what I said before. He has a professional reputation to protect. You, on the other hand, are merely a pseudonym on a blog.

  • @Alias,

    Here is the link to Shalev’s article: