Former South African President Nelson Mandela. Reuters/Siphiwe Sibeko
Shortly before Nelson Mandela stepped down as president of South Africa in 1999, racial anxiety was a lucrative business. At the public library in the affluent area of Sandton, I attended a session at which an emigration consultant, John Gambarana, warned a hundred-strong, mostly white audience of the chaos and mayhem to come. Holding up a book by broadcaster Lester Venter called When Mandela Goes, he told them, “People, this book is a wake-up call. The bad news is [when Mandela leaves] the pawpaw’s really going to hit the fan. The good news is the fan probably won’t be working.”
And so it was that, even in the eyes of those who made a living peddling fear, less than a decade after his release from prison, Mandela had been transformed from terrorist boogeyman to national savior.
White South Africa has come to embrace him in much the same way that most white Americans came to accept Martin Luther King Jr.: grudgingly and gratefully, retrospectively, selectively, without grace but with considerable guile. By the time they realized that their dislike of him was spent and futile, he had created a world in which admiring him was in their own self-interest. Because, in short, they had no choice.
As the last apartheid leader, F.W. de Klerk—who had lost the election to Mandela—told me that same year, “The same mistakes that we made were still being made in the United States and the ex-colonies. Then we carried them on for around twenty years longer.” There are myriad differences between apartheid South Africa and America under segregation. But on that point, if little else, de Klerk was absolutely right. Neither the benefits of integration nor the urgency with which it was demanded were obvious to most Americans during King’s time. A month before the March on Washington in 1963, 54 percent of whites thought the Kennedy administration was “pushing racial integration too fast.”
In 1966, nearly twice as many Americans had an unfavorable view of King as a favorable one. Only after he was assassinated—arguably only because he was assassinated—did the country begin to appreciate that his efforts, along with the broader civil rights movement, had spared it the ignominy of being the last to rid itself of legally sanctioned racism. It took about thirty years for the mud that had been slung at King to be cleaned off and his legacy polished to the gleam befitting a national treasure. By 1999, a Gallup poll revealed that only Mother Teresa was a more admired public figure in the twentieth century. In 2011, 91 percent of Americans (including 89 percent of whites) approved of a memorial to King being placed on the National Mall.
Despite the apartheid regime’s best efforts, it did not manage to kill Mandela or break his spirit. In frail health as I write, he has not only outlived most of his international detractors—including Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan; he has outclassed them in his pursuit of a peaceful transition and an embrace of inclusive democracy. To cite just one example, South Africa’s Constitution, promulgated by Mandela in 1996, was the first in the world to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation.