Back in the 1980s and earlier, parts of the Right got Nelson Mandela completely wrong. In some cases, this was because they had real doubts about his commitment to democratic politics, given his previous support for violence against the South African state. They also had misgivings about whether the ANC would govern South Africa well – concerns which, as Lord Risby reminds us on this site today, have often been justified by events: what he describes as “the loss of a moral compass, of poor governance, of corruption and cronyism, of damaging trade union activity and weak economic growth, resulting in high crime and unemployment”. But in other cases, reasons were less creditable. In some quarters of the Right when I was a student, there was sympathy for apartheid (on the racist ground that black people are the inferiors of others) and, in a few cases, outright support. It felt foul then, and the memory of it is no nicer now.
How ironic it is, therefore, that it was a real right-of-centre idea – or rather, a phenomenon that the centre-right has done most to advance and defend – that drove the ditching of apartheid: namely, capitalism. The old South African system, which was based on unscientific conceptions of “race”, classified people by ethnicity in much the same way that communism classified them by class. Unsurprisingly, apartheid thus turned out to be as incompatible with the demands of a modern market economy as communism itself, and pressure from business was decisive in convincing western governments to press for change. Robin Renwick’s memoir, A Journey with Margaret Thatcher, tells the story of how she believed, correctly, that the South African government of the day should be persuaded rather than simply isolated. Lord Renwick is no Conservative, but he favourably contrasts her practical pushes for reform with the empty grandstanding of some Commonwealth leaders.
“When it came to South Africa, she supported the arms and oil embargoes, but opposed further isolating the country,” he has written. “She reacted with genuine indignation to any imputation of racism. She regarded apartheid as an alien doctrine contrary to basic laws of justice and incompatible with her meritocratic vision of society, irrespective of race or creed.” His book sets out how Mandela grew to respect her. Some will ask why it is that F W De Klerk, who showed the vision of a Gorbachev in helping to dismantle apartheid, has never won the international love and renown that Mandela has. They will doubtless point out, too, that the latter wasn’t a saint. This is true as far as it goes: in the sense that the phrase is sometimes used, no-one is a saint. The answer to the question lies in what Mandela came to represent. Obviously, he came to be a symbol of anti-imperialism in some quarters, and of anti-racist politics in others – often both at once.
But he also came to stand for something more talismanic and numinous. Mandela’s turning away from violence towards peace was in one sense a form of realpolitik. He recognised that South Africa needed its white citizens if it was to prosper and flourish, and Clint Eastwood’s Invictus conveys how studiously and seriously he got to grips with their culture. But his insistence on reconciliation and forgiveness wasn’t simply an intellectual ploy. It was grafted on to him by his long experience of suffering in prison. Most other men would have succumbed to bitterness and hate – emotions which would have produced nothing good for Mandela nor, more importantly, for South Africa, either. But Mandela did not yield to the worse angels of our nature, and having won the right to forgive he gained a moral mastery. When W.B.Yeats died, Auden wrote of him that “he became his admirers”. Perhaps Mandela’s greatest achievement of all was that he did not become his admirers.
Instead, he was slowly purified into one of the great icons of the human imagination: the man who is not defeated by suffering, but triumphs over it, and does so by the only means possible – “the wisdom of humility. Humility is endless.”