South Africa in Context of African Tradition of Forgiveness

James N. Kariuki*

 South Africa is a rich country by African standards. Yet, since 2009 the same SA has earned the dubious distinction of being the world’s most socio-economically skewed society. This lopsidedness became the talk of global critics as far back as May 1998 when the then-SA Deputy President, Thabo Mbeki, stated before Parliament that his country was not a nation; it was merely two nations of rich whites and desperately poor blacks rolled into one.

In analyzing the racially defined socio-economic fault line in SA, commentators are unanimous that colonialism and apartheid were the initial offenders. But in the post-apartheid era a small undercurrent of thought emerged suggesting that the economic divide was elongated and widened by ‘compromised negotiations’ that were largely steered in the early 1990s by the late liberation icon, Nelson Mandela.

Though an intriguing possibility on first encounter, the ‘flawed negotiations’ proposition remained relatively muted during Mandela’s lifetime presumably because few dared to stand up and be counted as Madiba’s detractors while he lasted.  After all, he was the acknowledged, ultimate victim of apartheid who had evolved into mankind’s darling in old age. Indeed, to many in South Africa and beyond, Mandela had become an icon, the country’s only convincing psychological cement.

In post-Mandela era, however, the argument of ‘faulty negotiations’ has re-surfaced with gusto, a fact vividly reflected by the formation of a new political party, the Economic Freedom Fighters, headed by the former ANC maverick, Julius Malema. EFF is resolved to win the 2014 elections and officially embark on correcting the alleged errors in the negotiations of the early 1990s.

In those negotiations, the logic goes, Mandela was admirably tough on the political front, but was excessively soft on the economic side. In the end, Madiba settled for a lopsided economic deal that disinherited black folk. As a globally acclaimed analyst has put it, “a great Faustian bargain was struck between the two races. The Whites said to the Blacks, ‘You take the crown and we will keep the jewels.’”

Meanwhile, the wealthy whites are said to have murmured among themselves, “We will give them the vote but keep the banks.” Seemingly, they knew and understood that political power without economic power was as dry as dust.

The economic ‘soft-to-apartheid’ logic has been echoed by prominent personalities deeply loyal to Mandela. Among others, the list includes Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Professor Ali Mazrui and, especially, Mandela’s former wife, Winnie.

Believers in this thinking do not necessarily accuse Mandela of sinister scheming to bring more harm to the much tormented Blacks; but they do insist that more economic concessions should have been demanded for the historically brutalized fellow Africans. In short, what Mandela is blamed for is embarking upon misguided priorities: peace at the price of poverty  for Blacks.

Some are convinced that the ANC pushed Mandela to accept the strategy of going easy on the economic front during the negotiations. Reportedly, the party was tired of an ungovernable country: constant fighting, never-ending-labor strikes, the general strife and struggle. ANC longed for peace. But then, tactically, it was Mandela who chose to jump, and he went too far in the wrong direction.

For the radicals, Winnie among them, Mandela had been mellowed by the lengthy apartheid imprisonment. For that reason, he unwittingly went overboard to accommodate the apartheid machine in a manner that verged on appeasement. As a result, he got and accepted a ‘sucker’s economic deal’ for his people. Was there an element of forgiveness in Mandela’s behavior?

Perhaps Mandela’s overall softness to apartheid’s economic destiny was partly derived from an older Pan-African thought. Indeed, Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah had addressed the same question of what domain African anti-colonialism should target first: political or economic power? Nkrumah responded in his capacity as the elder statesman in African nationalism by asserting, ‘Seek ye first the political kingdom and all things shall be added unto you.’

During the SA negotiations in the 1990s, was Mandela inspired by Nkrumah’s ‘political-kingdom-first’ doctrine?  It should not be held against Madiba in the least if he was not aware of that dictum. After all, he was already in political prison when African nationalism took off in earnest and debates of that nature became commonplace.

Yet, evidence suggests otherwise. In addition to his famous photographic memory, Mandela was well read. Ali Mazrui tells how he was once in a conference and, accidentally, bumped into Mandela in the hallway. Startled, Mazrui greeted the global icon and introduced himself. Mandela responded, ‘Oh, Professor Ali Mazrui, nice to meet you! I used to read your publications when I was in prison!”

If Mandela remembered Ali Mazrui’s name and that he had followed his works while in prison, he certainly knew of the Pan-African economic-political kingdoms debate pertaining to African decolonization. Indeed Nkrumah’s statement on this issue remains one of his most cited decrees ever, and Mazrui has published extensively on Nkrumah. In de-emphasizing the economic aspect of the negotiations to abolish apartheid, was Mandela acting under the spell of Kwame Nkrumah?

To Mandela, the driving imperative was SA as a whole.  For the survival of his country, he chose the political-kingdom-first-proposition by embracing reconciliation and nation-building. This, an attempt to build a Rainbow Nation, was indeed the only viable alternative that made sense to Madiba of that time. This was not necessarily the easy route in an angry and volatile country and the call was public: one Boer one bullet.

Mandela was convinced that, to avoid a catastrophic and unwinnable civil war and for the country to survive and move forward, it needed both its Black and white citizenry working together. After all, the White man had the skills and capital; the black man had the labor.

The idea in Mandela’s negotiation camp was that, once political power was in the grasp of Blacks, the economy could slowly be transformed to respond more to their needs. After all, was Affirmative Action not the approach that the USA had adopted since the 1960s to uplift African-Americans? Indeed this became the rationale behind South Africa’s Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) of the coming years. Unfortunately, BEE has so far fallen short of uplifting the poor Blacks and bringing about economic equality in SA

Was Mandela a lone voice in the wilderness of African history in seeking reconciliation with his former tormentors?  This question invites another: what do SA, Zimbabwe and Kenya have in common? It is common knowledge that all are in black Africa and were all once European colonies. Each was home to a sizeable presence of white settlers and independence struggle in each involved bloodshed.

Professor James N. Kariuki
Professor James N. Kariuki

What is less publicized is that they all sought to consummate their independence in the spirit of reconciliation, a reflection of what has been called African capacity to forgive. In his bid to extend a hand of friendship to his former tormenters, Mandela was not alone.

Thirty years earlier, Kenya’s Jomo Kenyatta also emerged from colonialists’ lengthy political imprisonment urging his countrymen to pull together to build the nation. Meanwhile, he appealed to the former colonial detractors to stay in newly independent Kenya. To assure them of their sense of belonging in black-ruled Kenya, he went the extra mile of writing a book clearly aimed at calming their nerves. Hence the surprising title of his popular 1968 book, Suffering without Bitterness.

A dozen years before Mandela took over in SA, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe also expressed remarkably similar sentiments.  History seems to have forgotten that in 1981 Mugabe was shortlisted as a nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize for his initial enthusiasm for reconciliation following the transition from white-ruled Rhodesia to majority-ruled Zimbabwe. As the country’s first president Mugabe stated, “Our people, young and old, men and women, black and white, living and dead, are, on this occasion, being brought together in a new form of national unity that makes them all Zimbabweans.”

Ian Smith, the ultimate anti-thesis of African nationalism and all that it stood for, the white man behind a brutal seven year war in Rhodesia and loss of 30, 000 lives, remained free and untormented in majority-ruled Zimbabwe. In fact Smith became a Member of Parliament in Mugabe’s black government and its harshest critic.

It was only after these gestures that Nelson Mandela raised eyebrows by extending a hand of friendship to the Afrikaner community.

Jomo Kenyatta, Robert Mugabe and Nelson Mandela shared victimization and  their response of seeking reconciliation once victors. This is a far cry from the behavior of, say, Israel. Some analysts have attributed this trait to black African cultures and their remarkable capacity to forgive.

Remarkably, Algeria had an identical experience as Kenya, Zimbabwe and SA It was colonized, had a sizeable white settler community and it fought a war of independence noteworthy for its appalling savagery. But to this day, Algerians and their colonizing French have never been able to forgive each other for the scale of inhumanity perpetrated during the war for independence. Does Arabic Algeria need a touch of African negritude?

 *James N. Kariuki is Professor of International Relations (Emeritus) and an independent writer.  He is based in South Africa. Views expressed in the blog Global Africa are his.


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