Mandela’s stoicism, tea with Ian Smith, and South Africa’s civil war that never was

In 2000, on a visit to Zimbabwe, Jason Cowley met the former Rhodesian leader Ian Smith.

A statue of Nelson Mandela unveiled on 16 December 2013 in Pretoria, South Africa. Photo: Getty.

It’s not what happens to you but how you react to it that matters.
Epictetus

When I first travelled in and around South Africa in 1998, I was struck by how good the roads were. “That’s because it used to be a police state: they had to move the army around quickly,” I was told by a friend from the University of Cape Town. Like many before me, I was shocked on that visit by the huge disparities of wealth – 15 years later, they are even greater – between those who lived abject lives in sprawling shanty settlements and those, mostly wealthy whites (soon to be joined by the new black elite), who lived close by in their gated mansions, protected by high walls, razor wire and “armed response” teams.

Wherever you went, white people in positions of influence grumbled about the effects of “affirmative action” and state-led plans for black empowerment to address decades of racial discrimination. They were fearful about what would happen in the country after Mandela had served his one and only term as president.

Roads not taken

One of the most powerful criticisms of Mandela’s presidency from the South African left is that he was too willing to forgive his Afrikaner oppressors and too reluctant to challenge the corporate power structures that, on the whole, remained in place after the end of apartheid. That he emerged from prison speaking of the need for reconciliation rather than revenge is why he is so revered, a man for all nations and now for the ages, as Barack Obama remarked, in an echo of what was said of Abraham Lincoln after his death. But shouldn’t Mandela’s economic reforms have been bolder and more transformative? Shouldn’t he have implemented affirmative action more systematically, as well as introducing far-reaching land reform of a kind that will one day be necessary in South Africa? In 1994, 87 per cent of the land was owned by white people; it’s little better today. Political apartheid has gone; economic apart­heid remains.

Critical mass

In 2000, on a visit to Zimbabwe, I met the former Rhodesian leader Ian Smith for afternoon tea at his house in a quiet suburb of Harare. “Smithie” told me he felt betrayed by the old apartheid regime in South Africa. Yet even he, who had done so much to prevent black majority rule in Zimbabwe, spoke of Mandela with admiration. Smith expressed the hope that he would live long enough to witness the fall, or death, of his old enemy Robert Mugabe. He did not, of course.

Mugabe was once celebrated as a great African national liberation leader. Like Mandela, he spent years in prison; the experience embittered him. When Mugabe’s Zanu-PF won power in the first democratic election of 1980, he showed flexibility and willingness to compromise. Learning from what had happened in Angola and Mozambique after the flight of the Portuguese in the 1970s, Mugabe encouraged whites to stay on in the new country. Samora Machel, revolutionary leader and then president of Mozambique from 1975 until his death in 1986 (Mandela married his widow, Graça), advised Mugabe to keep a critical mass of white people in Zimbabwe during the early years of transition. Though many whites left for Britain, South Africa and Australia, those who stayed were allowed to keep their farms and businesses. For a short time after the election, Peter Walls, Mugabe’s implacable enemy in the bush war, was even retained as head of the armed forces; he was ousted only after being implicated in plots to assassinate Mugabe.

For all this, Mugabe was an instinctive despot. His North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade militia was responsible for the massacres in Matabeleland in 1982. He neither forgave nor forgot his oppressors and believed in violent struggle: for him, the end always justified the means. However, he turned against white farmers only at the end of the 1990s, after feeling threatened by the emergence of the Movement for Democratic Change.

Out of the ruins

South Africa has been ill served by those who have followed Mandela, though no Mugabe has emerged. As president, Thabo Mbeki, son of Govan Mbeki, who was imprisoned with Mandela on Robben Island, oversaw years of continuous economic growth but without leading the necessary social and economic transformation. He was diminished by his failure to respond adequately to the country’s Aids epidemic, refusing to accept that the disease was caused by the HIV virus. During his leadership, the murder rate soared and corruption became institutionalised.

Mbeki’s successor, Jacob Zuma, the current president of South Africa, is a dictatorial clown but his failures might yet help the country to become a proper multiparty democracy, as factions break away from the ANC to set up rival organisations.

Dark mirror

In her 1981 dystopian novel July’s People, Nadine Gordimer, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1991, imagines a South Africa ravaged by civil war. The borders have been closed and the rich white suburbs of Johannesburg have been overrun, the houses there looted or burned. The sense of terror and despair is palpable.

The central characters are the Smale family, white liberals, and their servant, July. Fleeing from the violence, the Smales retreat to July’s remote ancestral village. They are dependent on him for their safety and survival: the servant has become their master. The novel is an allegory of what could happen if oppression of the majority continued.

“There were times when things were just so bad,” Gordimer once told me. South Africa could easily have had a catastrophic civil war, of the kind feared by Gordimer and many others who lived under and through apartheid and experienced its absurdities and cruelties, or become a Zimbabwe-style tyranny. Things were indeed just so bad and today they are so much better – and that is because of one man, Nelson Mandela.