Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Mandela named 'Ambassador of Conscience'

I was please to read that Nelson Mandela is going to receive an Ambassador of Conscience award, Amnesty International's highest honor. Mandela is probably one of the two or three greatest leaders of the 20th century. Not in Africa, but in the world.

South Africa is now the most important country in Africa, politically and economically. It has a stable government which respects the rule of law. But it's important to remember that this was not inevitable.

South Africa in the early and mid-90s was a very violent place. Brutality sponsored by the apartheid state was rampant before the country's first multiracial elections in 1994. Cynical, exploitative local politicians made things worse. The country could very easily have exploded into a full-fledged civil war among the black population. There could have been a genocide or massacres against South Africa's white Afrikaans' population. Or by them. After Mandela's ANC won the elections, the party could've purged the civil service of whites or stripped whites of citizenship or instituted apartheid in reverse.

Mandela wasn't the only African liberation leader to take power with great promise. When he became the country's prime minister in 1980, fellow liberation struggler Robert Mugabe was praised for his moderate, visionary leadership of Zimbabwe. But in Mugabe's case, this was a ruse. Three years later, after international attention had moved away from Zimbabawe, Mugabe launched a genocide against the southern Ndebele people, who largely opposed his regime. His more recent atrocities are well-documented.

Ghana's Kwame N'Krumah and particularly Guinea's Sékou Touré were other independence leaders originally hailed as visionaries, who quickly became drunk with power after the international media focus shifted elsewhere.

This could've happened in South Africa. But it didn't. And that was due largely to the moral leadership of Nelson Mandela and the respect shown by his party members and by South Africans in general.

Twelve years after independence, N'Krumah had been overthrown by a military coup.

Twelve years after independence, Touré launched the first of several major purges against the Peul people.

Twelve years after liberation, South Africa's judiciary threw out corruption charges against a former ally turned rival of the president.

Sékou Touré would've just thrown him in Camp Boiro and let him starve to death. More prominent men suffered the same fate.

Why has South Africa turned out differently? Partly it was because the anti-apartheid struggle was internationalized in a way that the the 1950s anti-colonial struggles (Algeria excepted) were not. So its moral component was more heavily emphasized and thus harder to ignore once liberation was achieved. Additionally, we live in a much different era than in the 1960s when coups, wars and genocides in distant lands might pass without notice.

But partly it was because of the moral leadership of Nelson Mandela. In an era where it's easy to be cynical about politicians, it's reassuring to know that the rare statesman still exists. I can think of no one more deserving of this award.

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