December 7, 2013


Back in the Cold War, when navies still mattered, we allowed three of our allies to treat domestic populations in a manner we would not have allowed in peace time : the Brits, in Ireland; the Israelis in Palestine; and the Boers in South Africa.  We bore the oppressed peoples no animus and our relations with our allies suffered some level of strain because of their actions, but we largely turned a blind eye rather than risk allowing the Soviets entree to three naval choke-points.

Inevitably, as soon as it became apparent that we'd won the Cold War we began bringing pressure to bear on these three allies top rectify the respective situations, which they promptly did--to one degree or another.  Gerry Adams, Yassir Arafat and Nelson Mandela thus became the beneficiaries of events that they were rather secondary to and they handled their good fortune with different degrees of class, from some to none.

Obviously Nelson Mandela is the giant of this triumvirate.  And he does deserve credit for not seeking reprisals against the Afrikaaners when he assumed power.  But those were two dang low bars to clear and an appalingly minimal threshold for secular sainthood.  One strains to see any way in which he used his personal freedom and the empowerment of his people to help ameliorate the suffering of other peopls mired in dictatorship.  His own continent offered no end of regimes that deserve toppling as much or more than the white South African government did, yet where was he?  

Indeed, given the opportunity to join the West in deposing one of the most brutal dictators of the era, he instead sided with Saddam Hussein against the Iraqi people.  In the end, he was a "small man" who handled a big moment about as well as could have been hoped.  To pretend he was anything more is to engage in what a big-hearted man once called "the soft bigotry of low expectations."

Mandela's death marks a time of reckoning for South Africa's ANC (Anne Applebaum, December 6, 2013, Washington Post)

Without Mandela, the ANC can no longer pretend to be a party, as he once put it, with a "noble cause": It is simply the party of power. Although South African democracy is extraordinarily healthy in many senses -- its media, judiciary and civil society function well -- ANC candidates have until now won most national and regional elections by enormous margins. That means that people join the party in large numbers to get jobs, to get contracts, to get ahead.

In this narrow sense, the ANC now functions like the Chinese Communist Party: The most important political debates in South Africa take place within its ranks and at its congresses. Actual electoral contests matter much less. The consequences of 20 years of mostly one-party rule are the same for South Africa as they are in China: ANC-owned companies enjoy privileged access to state contracts; ANC politicians have been involved in complex cases of corruption; businesses often succeed or fail because of their political contacts and not because of their merit. Without real political competition, ANC politicians are not motivated to reform a state that doles out patronage to black insiders, just as the apartheid state once reserved its jobs and contracts for whites. 

The longer walk to equality (The Economist, Dec 6th 2013)

Under its own majority rule, the lot of the ever-growing black population--today forming over three-quarters of the national total--has been notably poor. Misguided governance, low-quality education, skills shortages and massive unemployment levels of around 40% have left it more disadvantaged today than when Nelson Mandela was still behind bars. Black income has virtually flat-lined, betraying tremendous gulfs between the wealth of the different racial groups. Sadly, the nation Mandela leaves behind today remains one of the most unequal in the world.

Posted by at December 7, 2013 8:33 AM

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