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How Nelson Mandela pulled his punches and helped transform South Africa

(Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

This is a guest post by Princeton political scientist Evan Lieberman. He is the author of “Race and Regionalism in the Politics of Taxation in Brazil and South Africa” as well as “Boundaries of Contagion: How Ethnic Politics Have Shaped Government Responses to AIDS.”

I first traveled to South Africa in 1991, just over a year after President F.W. De Klerk announced plans to dismantle the apartheid system, releasing Nelson Mandela and unbanning various political organizations such as the African National Congress. The world shared the joy experienced by millions of black South Africans, but I found that many, perhaps even most, white South Africans were scared of what would come next. You knew where someone stood when they referred to “Zimbabwe.” That was code for looming disaster. Some elaborated with a racist rant about the inevitable corruption, incompetence, and “black on black” violence that would surely ensue if blacks were to govern themselves.

Almost two decades after the first multiracial election, South Africa is clearly no Zimbabwe. There has been no civil war, no massive dispossession of property, no systematic state-sponsored violence. The country has muddled through four peaceful national elections and three turnovers of state president.  How did this happen?  Social scientists tend to dismiss “great man” explanations of politics. But in this case, it’s almost impossible to avoid highlighting the extraordinary role that Nelson Mandela played in the remarkable transformation of South Africa.

It is hard to remember now just how much uncertainty and fear there was in South Africa after Mandela’s release from prison. A new political system was essentially being built from scratch — and in the most challenging conditions possible.  Political scientists have written much about designing political institutions for divided societies, including South Africa. As early as 1971, the Dutch political scientist Arend Lijphart traveled to South Africa to recommend a model of power-sharing. Just after apartheid’s end, political scientist Donald Horowitz offered a set of ideas in his book “A Democratic South Africa? Constitutional Engineering for a Divided Society.” But unlike Lijphart’s Netherlands, South Africa was not merely divided. It was one of the most unequal countries in the world, the product of years of institutionalized white supremacy.

In fact, the new South African constitution actually did not follow the political science.  It included some of what Lijphart recommended — such as proportional representation and some decentralization of government — to guarantee some access to power for whites.  But these measures did not constitute the robust sort of power-sharing that Lijphart envisioned.  Moreover, the constitution did not go very far toward allaying the fears of white South Africans, many of whom worried that the black majority, having lived under the boots of a white minority for so long, would seek revenge.  For this reason, some wanted the constitution to focus less on the traditional principle of “one person, one vote” and instead enshrine “group protections” and “group rights” that would place checks on a black-led government.  Ultimately, the constitution did little to protect “group rights.” Many whites left the country in hordes. London, Melbourne, and Southern California are still home to white South Africans who predicted a blood bath.

This only heightens the puzzle of how South Africa achieved stability and relative peace. Enter Mandela. In his work and in his life, he embodied the very self-restraint that constitutional planners did not manage to institutionalize in the formal rules of government. As has been widely documented, he embraced his jailer, he appropriated the symbols of the former white rugby team, and he told his constituents to “be patient.” He led by example, and for the most part, people followed. Mandela, who had an amateur boxing career in the 1930s and spent a lifetime fighting against an unjust political system, pulled his punches at the precise moment when many others would have gone for the knockout.

What did Mandela’s magnanimity achieve? Answers to this question certainly vary by whom you ask and by what yardstick is used. But despite its warts, South Africa is still widely considered one of the robust democracies on the African continent. In my ongoing research, I have found that in just the past decade the government has made substantial progress in providing access to basic services such as running water, electricity, and trash collection; in providing millions of new homes and toilets; and in expanding public health systems. It is also true that services in the former “homelands” continues to be much, much worse than in the areas that were previously all-white.  Crime rates are unacceptable.  Reports of corruption are disturbing. And yet, on balance, I think it’s hard to deny that the glass is more full than empty when one looks across the African continent and at South Africa’s recent past.

People in my line of work, studying politics, tend to make rather dismal assumptions about political leaders: that they are selfish and strive only to stay in power and enrich themselves and those around them. Nelson Mandela was clearly an exception. And his exceptionalism was transformative.