Mandela, Queen Elizabeth and Handel’s Messiah

There is no doubt that the reaction to Mandela's death will reflect his values of reconciliation, understanding and harmony.

 

It was the moment everyone had been waiting for. As the choir finally arrived at the Hallelujah chorus, the audience rose as one. The Cape Town City Hall does not posses the greatest acoustics, but its slightly faded interior brightened with the soaring notes. The city’s Philharmonia Choir has performed Handel’s Messiah every Easter since 1968. Then the audience would have been exclusively white. Today it is thoroughly multiracial and as the packed hall finally shuffled out, there was a warm buzz of an evening well spent. The tenor, Thembinkosi Mgetyengana, still studying at the University of Cape Town, had been particularly well received.

The City Hall has seen its fair share of illustrious guests. The Queen celebrated her twenty-first birthday here in 1947. The mayoral parlour – with its magnificent wood panelling – was redecorated specially for the occasion. On the wall an oil painting of the warship that had brought her to these shores, is depicted docked with the face of Table Mountain towering above it. On the shelf, there is a black and white photograph of Princess Elizabeth in a flowing party dress, smiling just a little nervously.

On her twenty-first birthday, on the 21 April 1947, the princess was touring South Africa with her parents and younger sister. In a speech broadcast on the radio from Cape Town, she spoke of dedicating her life to the service of the Commonwealth. “I declare before you all that my whole life whether it be long or short shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belongs,” she said.

But it is for another, more famous speech, for which this Town Hall is best known. Just below the mayoral parlour, up a short flight of steps from the street, is the modest balcony that was once the centre of world attention. It was from here, on Sunday 11 February 1990 that Nelson Mandela made his first public address after his release from 27 years of imprisonment. The Grand Parade, laid out before the City Hall, was packed with more than 250,000 people. The speech was televised live around the world.

Mandela, his voice ringing with emotion, told the vast audience, “I stand here before you not as a prophet, but as a humble servant of you, the people.” He went on to thank the millions who had “campaigned tirelessly” for his release, before addressing people the City of Cape Town itself. “I extend special greetings to the people of Cape Town, the city which has been my home for three decades. Your mass marches and other forms of struggle have served as a constant source of strength to all political prisoners.”

Today, at 94, Nelson Mandela is once more back in hospital, suffering from pneumonia. It is the third time he’s been treated in an undisclosed hospital in the past year. The South African public are given brief, reassuring bulletins on his condition, but it is no longer in the headlines or the topic of conversation. Most people seem resigned that the man who so inspired the country is now in some sort of transition between this world and the next. It has been years since he took an active part in politics and even glimpses of Mandela in public have been rare events. World leaders have, sometimes, been allowed to visit him, but even these have become increasingly infrequent.

It is, perhaps, the calm before the storm. The international media have been preparing for the Mandela death for years. Achieves have been trawled, locations recced, guests booked. Days of non-stop coverage have been meticulously planned. Even the Mandela’s old party – the ANC – is said to have quietly appointed a public relations firm to handle the avalanche of media attention that his demise is certain to unleash.

One question almost every journalist has been asked for years is: what will happen when Mandela goes? The seldom articulated implication is clear – will the reconciliation that he preached be swept away in a tide of black anger? It is not difficult to find websites predicting just such an outcome. One suggests 70,000 will be killed in a Communist inspired plot.

While predicting the future is always a mug's game, this kind of speculation is no more than far-right hysteria. No one doubts that Mandela’s death will be met with a vast outpouring of emotion from ordinary South Africans – of all races. But it will be tempered by the values that he stood for: of reconciliation, understanding and harmony among his people. The country’s institutions are sound and its roots are deep. They will survive even the passing of its most revered son.   

Nelson Mandela speaking on a trip back to Robben Island in 2003. Photograph: Getty Images

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. With Paul Holden, he is the author of Who Rules South Africa?

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Why Russia holds the key to resolving the North Korea crisis

China is propping up North Korea’s economy, but it seems to get little influence in return.

For more than half a century, China has seen North Korea as a dangerous irritant as much as an asset. It might be useful for keeping the United States off guard, and regarded as an essential buffer by the military establishment, but China would happily ditch it if there were a better option.

The North Korean regime has tended to be characterised as uniquely irrational and unpredictable. From its perspective, however, its behaviour makes eminent sense: in fact, its argument for developing a nuclear capability closely echoes the rationale of the great powers. It has no declared intent to launch a first strike, but as long as others have nuclear weapons, North Korea reasons they serve a deterrent function. The regime also argues, as others have, that there are associated benefits with civil nuclear power.  

The long history of North Korea’s nuclear programme follows a recognisable path, previously trodden by Israel, India and Pakistan. It goes from the ambition, formed in the mind of North Korea’s founding dictator, Kim Il-sung, through the long years of a clandestine programme, to the gradual revelation of a reasonably mature, if relatively small, nuclear capability. Signalling is also an element in deterrence. The regime is certainly unpleasant and destabilising, but it is a mistake to imagine that there is no clear purpose and no plan.

The dynasty began life as a Soviet puppet, sandwiched between a powerful USSR and a weak China. But from the start, Kim Il-sung’s muscular nationalism and concern for regime survival suggested that he was unlikely to be a docile dependent of either. His attempt to unify the peninsula by force in 1950 led to a bloody war in which Mao Zedong was obliged to come to his rescue. In the course of that war, “fire and fury” did indeed rain down on North Korea: the US dropped as much ordnance on North Korea as it had during the whole of the Second World War Pacific theatre, including the carpet bombing of Japan. To this day, any building site in Pyongyang is likely to turn up some unexploded ordnance. North Korea was born in a rain of fire, which it has incorporated into its national story.

The regime succeeded in maintaining relations with both its patrons through the dramas and tensions of the Sino-Soviet split to the end of the Cold War. But as Kim Il-sung contemplated the future survival of his regime, he concluded that a nuclear programme was essential insurance, both against his major enemies (the US and South Korea) and any territorial ambitions or excessive demands from China or Russia.

China was and remains North Korea’s major ally, but that does not make North Korea obedient. Their bilateral history is a story of growing defiance and increasing alienation: Kim Il-sung ignored Mao Zedong’s attempt to dissuade him from naming his eldest son, Kim Jong-il, as his successor. He had visited Beijing once a year and had promised that his son would follow suit, but Kim Jong-il only visited Deng Xiaoping’s China once, in 1983. His next visit came three years after Deng’s death, a death for which Kim had offered no formal condolences, as even the most minimal protocol required. 

On that visit, Kim heard the unwelcome news that China, already closer to the United States than he would have wished, was to open relations with his bitter rival, South Korea. When the third dynastic leader, the young Kim Jong-un, took power in 2011, relations with China slid further. Tellingly, Kim Jong-un has not visited Beijing at all, nor has China’s leader, President Xi Jinping, visited Pyongyang, although he has held four summit meetings with South Korea.

Kim Jong-un has made his defiance publicly evident. Not only has he chosen to test his missiles and weapons, but he has selected such highly sensitive moments as last year’s G20 summit in Hangzhou to do so.

China is propping up North Korea’s economy, but it seems to get little influence in return, and the value of the relationship has long been openly questioned by China’s foreign policy analysts. China has had little success in encouraging the regime to loosen controls on the economy and make limited market reforms.

 In the current crisis, China has consistently urged restraint, while co-operating with the tightening of UN sanctions. Beijing’s attitude, however, remains ambivalent: it doubts that sanctions will be effective, and is highly sensitive to US suggestions that Chinese companies that breach sanctions would be subject to punitive measures.  For China, the dangers of bringing North Korea to the edge of collapse are greater than the difficulties of seeking another solution.

Today, North Korea’s relations with Russia are warmer than those with Beijing and if President Trump is serious in his search for someone to solve his North Korea problem for him, he could do worse than to call his friend Mr Putin. No doubt there would be a price, but perhaps Trump would have less difficulty in appeasing Russia than in making concessions to Kim Jong-un. 

In July this year, China and Russia put forward a proposal that both sides should make concessions. North Korea would suspend its nuclear and its missile testing in return for a suspension of South Korea’s annual military exercises with the United States. Buried in the joint statement was the assertion that third parties should not negatively affect the interests of other countries.

Both China and Russia aim to reduce US influence in Asia, an ambition greatly aided to date by Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, conceived as a vehicle of US influence; his treatment of long-standing US allies; and his decision to withdraw the US from the Paris agreement on climate change.

Today the US seems poised between demanding that China solve the North Korea problem and beginning a trade war with Beijing. China’s challenge on the Korean peninsula, always difficult, has grown even greater.

Isabel Hilton is the CEO of the China Dialogue Trust

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear