Mandela, and de Klerk

It would be hard to say anything new about Nelson Mandela after the last day of praise and remembrance.  I met him–very briefly–at a UN cocktail party in 1994.  All I really remember is his assiduous effort to introduce himself to each of the wait staff.  They were thrilled.  So was I.

But there are a few things that might bear repetition, if only for emphasis.  As correct as it is to celebrate Mandela for his pursuit of justice, it was really his pursuit of peace that made him so unusual.  I wouldn’t want to minimize the courage required to stand up against racism in apartheid South Africa, but it took at least as much to stand up to those who thought violence was the only way to bring the system down and then to seek reconciliation with white South Africans in the aftermath.

That would not have been possible but for Mandela’s negotiating partner, F.W. de Klerk.  As the last president of apartheid South Africa, he not only released Mandela from jail but cooperated in converting his country to a one-person, one-vote electoral system that necessarily meant the end of white domination, at least at the ballot box.  He also ended South Africa’s nuclear weapons program, which was meant to help sustain apartheid.

South Africa managed its transition quickly and well, even if I find it hard to admire its post-apartheid politics (and politicians).  The countries I mostly follow in the Balkans and the Middle East are not so much managing their transitions as experiencing them, and things are going slowly by comparison.  It seems to me there are at least four reasons:

  • While apartheid South Africa was a violent place, mass atrocity was relatively rare.
  • The leaders of its main political movements, having risen to prominence as die-hard opponents, were prepared to run the risk of compromise in order to prevent killing on a much wider scale.
  • In doing so, they countered the worst instincts of their supporters and demonstrated a level of political courage that is not seen elsewhere.
  • Both Mandela and de Klerk were prepared to subordinate their personal ambitions to broader goals, stepping down from power rather than trying to hold on to it.

War makes transition much more difficult:  witness Libya, Syria and even Egypt, where violence is now a daily occurrence.  Not to mention Bosnia, Croatia, and Kosovo.  Virtually nowhere in the Balkans or the Middle East have leaders been willing to run the risk of compromise.  Nor do they stand up against the worst instincts of their supporters, precisely because they do not subordinate personal ambitions to broader national or societal goals.

It would be too much to ask that each country produce a Nelson Mandela and an F.W. de Klerk, a well-matched pair of leaders ready to defy their own supporters and seek peaceful outcomes within an overall framework of justice.  These are extraordinary people who rose to an occasion that we  recognize as fortuitous only because we know what came after them.  At the time, a lot of people thought they were making big mistakes.  No doubt there are leaders in other places who would gladly do a deal, but finding each other and maintaining discipline over their supporters long enough to implement it is a lot less attractive than continuing the struggle.

Most politicians won’t risk ending a fight they fear will mean their own eclipse or even destruction.  That’s what de Klerk and Mandela did.  It was an extraordinary act of generosity and self-effacement, one that does not come naturally to most of those who come to leadership positions.  Mandela merits every bit of praise he is getting.  But he would not have been successful in managing a relatively peaceful transition without de Klerk.  I see lots of leaders out there decrying injustice, as they should.  Where are the leaders who are prepared to negotiate an end to it?

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