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Nelson Mandela's legacy — and its limitations

When talk turns to the legacy of Nelson Mandela, who turns 95 on Thursday, I remember one of my most memorable moments in journalism.

It was 1985, and I was in South Africa as part of the “Nightline” coverage of that nation, which was still under the apartheid rule of the white minority government. Through a chain of contacts, we’d arranged an interview with an African National Congress official named Patrick Lekota, who was being hunted by authorities for treason. His nickname, “Terror,” might have given credibility to the accusation, except that it came from his aggressive play on the soccer field.

Lekota talked of the life he had led before he’d gone underground; a life that included time on Robben Island in the prison where Mandela had been held for 18 of his 27 years in custody. Lekota also spoke of harassment by the government and the deaths by official hand of many of his colleagues.

He also said that before going underground, he'd spent many nights driving a sound track around Soweto, South Africa’s largest black township. He played speeches of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy—speeches that urged a nonviolent struggle.

Why, I asked Lekota, after all you and your colleagues have gone through, after all that has been inflicted on the black majority, do you embrace nonviolence?

Because,he said, “if we win with bloodshed ... we will have lost.”

There is no way to minimize or trivialize the meaning of what Nelson Mandela did in waging the nonviolent fight against apartheid as he did.

Five years after that trip to South Africa, I went back and heard the just-freed Mandela give a speech to a rapturous crowd in a massive Soweto soccer stadium. His approach was a key to convincing the country's president, F.W. de Klerk, that apartheid had to end and that black majority rule was inevitable. That, in turn, spared South Africa a racial war and the twisted mutation of "majority rule" in Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe.

There is also no way to avoid the limitations of Mandela’s legacy.

It could not prevent the installation of successor presidents who inflicted real damage on their country. Thabo Mbeki’s refusal to understand the link between the HIV virus and AIDS is one reason why South Africa has the world’s largest HIV/AIDS population. The current president, Jacob Zuma, has remained in office despite highly credible charges of rape and corruption.

It wouldn’t be fair to expect one larger-than-life leader to prevent the kind of failures that afflict governments all around the world. Nor should we expect South Africa to be free from the kind of political infighting common to free governments. (Patrick Lekota, minister of defense under President Mbkei, now leads an opposition party).

But far more serious afflictions bedevil South Africa. Decades of white supremacist rule have left the black majority in an economic state that political emancipation cannot uproot. Today, the country's official jobless rate is 25 percent — a level seen in the U.S. at the depths of the Great Depression. Crime is a serious enough issue there that the State Department issued a travel warning last month labeling Johannesburg, Cape Town and Pretoria “critical crime threat spots.”

Our own nation serves as a lesson here. In the early 20th century, blacks in the South, a region with state-sanctioned peonage and terror, began fleeing in massive numbers a migration described brilliantly by Isabel Wilkerson in her book “The Warmth of Other Suns.” In 1910, 90 percent of all blacks lived in the South; by 1960, barely half did. The impact of that migration still is felt today, a hundred years after it began. It would be naive to think that the effects of the system imposed by white South Africans on the black majority decades ago would not endure long after apartheid came to an end.

Nelson Mandela’s commitment to a peaceful path to justice did not, and could not,deliver his nation from the consequences of its past. But what he did, and what his nation was spared, is more than enough to celebrate.

 

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