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173 - What Mandela Could Teach Putin: Killing Others Gains Little
At his victory day parade this week Putin claimed falsely that provocations by “Western globalists and elites,” “sow hatred,” “Russophobia,” and “destroy traditional family values” justify his senseless, sick, killing spree in Ukraine. Roughly 200,000 Russians have been killed or wounded so far and – as the consummate narcissist that I wrote about Tuesday knows -- Putin desperately fears acknowledging failure. Incapable of understanding how to be inclusive and what it means to reconcile, he has doomed Ukraine and Russia to a cascade of annihilation.
Twenty-nine years ago yesterday, Nelson Mandela became South Africa’s first free president after more than four decades of apartheid. His African National Congress (ANC) overwhelmingly proved victorious in the nation’s first free and fair (and fully participatory) test of preferences.
Mandela had spent twenty-seven years in prison for opposing apartheid and the rule of oppressive whites. He had scores to settle, and so did kin of the thousands of Africans killed by whites and harmed immeasurably as a result of apartheid laws and restrictions.
But Mandela did not rail, as he might well have, at the injustices inflicted on Africans over more than a century. Nor did he single out individuals (as well he might have personally) in an accusatory manner. He could have unleashed a massive counteroffensive against whites in general and Afrikaner leaders in particular.
Instead, in an approach that won Mandela the applause of millions globally (as well as locally) Mandela took the presidential oath in 1994 and extolled the beginning of a new “society of which all humanity shall be proud.” He continued “Never, never, and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another and suffer the indignity of being the skunk of the world.”
President Mandela continued for the rest of his formal term in office (through 1999), and thereafter as a private citizen of the world, to focus on reconciling the black majority with the white minority in order to avoid violence. He succeeded in forestalling revenge attacks and most martial battles between contending black groupings, and in ushering in a genuinely reborn nation where the past is never forgotten, but where harmony among disparate peoples is prized.
Mandela could hardly have created a perfect society. The rot of apartheid and highly developed deprivations by whites of African educational and medical opportunities, plus the overall dehumanization perpetrated by apartheid, proved a deep legacy from which all South Africa still suffers.
But Mandela prevented the mayhem that might have followed independence in 1994; he also spent almost every moment of his presidential term showing his followers how to treat a former enemy and oppressor. He took tea with the widow of the architect of apartheid, invited his prison warders to dinner, met with one of South Africa’s most reviled recent presidents and – a masterful gesture of great symbolism – donned the Springbok jersey of South Africa’s winning national rugby team to the rapturous chants of “Nelson, Nelson.”
Mandela could have been a populist spouter of hateful calumny. He could have rewarded those of his newly ascendant countrypersons with the red meat of hostility and retaliation. Instead, he chose a path of inclusion, of wrapping his weary arms around all peoples of whatever color and religion to create a rainbow nation of dignified togetherness. He chose integrity over deceit and encouraged his citizens of all colors to believe in themselves and the togetherness of their country.
It is true that the post-Mandela years have not been kind to South Africa and South Africans. After he left office, probity receded. Kleptocracy and virulent corruption rewarded the ANC and many of its leaders and innumerable functionaries. Crime continued at high rates, even though homicide levels have somewhat receded. Many black South Africans are more prosperous than they were -- the “fat cats” favored by some presidents – but South Africa is still one of the most unequal societies on earth. Most of all, in many ways, there has not been a substantial educational dividend; many young South Africans are in school, but do not learn to read well according to international tests. Girls do not remain in secondary school as long as their contemporaries in the high-performing African countries.
Yes, South Africa is a post-apartheid, post Mandela, success because there have been hardly any revenge atrocities. The peoples of the nation seem to get along together easily and without too much rancor despite some white complaints that they are the ones discriminated against in employment and at university. A handful of white farmers have been killed in the course of robberies, too.
Were Mandela still with us, he would be distressed at the vast extent of corruption, at the discord within the ANC between those who still seek plunder and those who are trying under President Cyril Ramaphosa’s leadership to return South Africa to a path of integrity. He would wonder why then lights keep going out. The great first president would also fret about South Africa’s official attempt to pretend that Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is excusable, refusing as it is to condemn war and refusing to take sides against the Russians because they once backed the ANC’s struggle to topple apartheid.
Mandela always favored the moral path. South Africa has now deviated from it decisively in its tilt toward Putin and its refusal to stand with Ukraine and the West.
Mandela was a peace maker. Mandela, even in the throes of the internal battle against apartheid, never wanted wanton slaughter. His message to Putin must now be: Cease the killing; retreat; find an excuse to end the conflict before you descend into the depths of hellish infamy.
Putin is likely deaf to Mandela’s posthumous entreaties. But that is what a global icon can advise a global pariah.
PS: There is a critical election Sunday in Turkey. If the polls are right, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan could be in trouble. Or he could control the result.
The Sudanese generals are still trying to tear the country apart. Mandela needs to talk to them, too.