On July 18, Former South African President Nelson Mandela celebrates his 94th birthday. In honor of Mandela, the Africa Growth Initiative reflects on his leadership, global influence, and dedication to the fight for democracy and equality for all races.
As we celebrate Nelson Mandela’s birthday this month, it’s good to remind ourselves of this great leader’s indelible imprint on global governance in general and the South African political economy in particular. Mandela had a dream for his beloved South Africa, which had been ravaged by state-sanctioned racial bigotry under apartheid. He saw all the peoples of South Africa—various African ethnic groups, descendants of European settlers and Asian immigrants, and peoples of mixed race—as his brothers and sisters, all citizens of a nonracial, nonsexist, modern South African state. Unlike most so-called nationalist leaders in other parts of the African continent who fought against colonial oppression, Mandela did not seek to replace Afrikaner-imposed tyranny of apartheid with institutional structures that would allow African ethnic groups to exploit others. Yet today some people fear that Mandela’s dream has been betrayed and that the “rainbow” nation that he fought so hard to found is gradually descending into some type of apocalyptic society.
What these defeatists fail to recognize is that Mandela and his peace-loving compatriots have established a country with institutional arrangements that protect the fundamental human rights of all citizens and enhance their ability to live together peacefully. First, a Constitution written through a participatory and inclusive process has provided the foundation for the country’s laws, which are designed to protect citizens’ rights and enhance peaceful coexistence. Second, unlike many other countries in Africa, the separation of powers guaranteed by South Africa’s Constitution has been realized in practice. As a consequence, the judiciary is not subservient to the executive. And third, the country maintains many effective private and public structures through which citizens can engage those who govern them.
Despite what the critics say, governance in South Africa, unlike that in many countries on the continent, today is characterized by a general adherence to the rule of law. Also, many South Africans, especially the young, still believe in Mandela’s dream and are not willing to give in to the naysayers. A diverse middle class, which even includes people from historically marginalized and deprived groups, has emerged in South Africa. And these citizens have been engaging the political elite, effectively serving as a check on the government. Hence, South Africa has good prospects for peaceful coexistence and sustainable development, and most South Africans continue to believe in Mandela’s dream of a peaceful nation, free of racial bigotry.
President Nelson Mandela’s Foreign Policy: Noble Intentions in Challenging Times
Witney Schneidman, Nonresident Fellow, Africa Growth Initiative
Andrew Westbury, Assistant Director, Africa Growth Initiative
When Nelson Mandela was sworn into office as South Africa’s first postapartheid president, the country’s expectations for him could not have been higher. Yet his immediate demands were not exclusively domestic. South Africa’s new president was seen to possess an unprecedented international influence to promote peace, and he felt a strong personal conviction to reorient South Africa’s apartheid-era foreign policy. For years, the country maintained a deliberate destabilization strategy to disrupt neighboring governments and liberation movements, which Mandela estimated left “two million dead and inflicted an estimated $62.45 billion of damage on the economies of our neighbors.” Despite noble efforts, the foreign policy that emerged under Mandela was generally inconsistent, with national interests and the pressures of the presidency testing his core convictions. President Mandela’s 94th birthday provides an opportunity to look back at the decisions and dynamics that shaped his approach to international relations.
Former Brookings Expert
Former Brookings Expert
Even before his presidency, Nelson Mandela was eager to reverse South Africa’s isolated position. He articulated a new approach to international relations, guided by the key principles of the promotion of human rights and democracy through nonviolent and multilateral measures, as well as a need to maintain diplomatic and economic solidarity with other African nations. The president wrote: “These convictions stand in stark contrast to how, for nearly five decades, apartheid South Africa disastrously conducted its international relations.”
President Mandela’s approach to foreign policy was tested when a contested trial in Nigeria resulted in a death sentence for activist Ken Saro-Wiwa. Following Saro-Wiwa’s execution, Mandela was the first world leader to demand an oil embargo against the Nigerian junta. However, his resolve was challenged when he found his commitment to human rights in conflict with his preferred strategy of multilateral engagement. As one of the world’s largest oil producers, Nigeria was able to effectively counter calls for sanctions, and many African governments were particularly reluctant to press the military regime. Without an international consensus, Mandela found his policy on Nigeria frustrated by his need to maintain solidarity with his African counterparts. His call for sanctions was later dismissed in favor of diplomatic engagement through the Organization of African Unity.
The year 1998 was another challenging time for Mandela’s foreign policy. In August, he maintained his commitment to the peaceful resolution of conflict, calling for diplomatic rather than military intervention from the Southern African Development Community to stop the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo. At the time, this position precipitated strong rebukes from some of the community’s member states. In particular, the president of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe, sank to personal attacks, arguing that “age has taken its toll” on Mandela.
Despite this peaceful strategy, also in 1998 South Africa authorized a poorly coordinated military intervention to avert a coup in neighboring Lesotho. The ensuing chaos left nearly 60 dead and precipitated riots in Lesotho’s capital, Maseru. Worse still, the intervention perpetuated regional resentment against South Africa’s role as big brother, an outcome strongly divergent from Mandela’s goal of African solidarity. South African interventions in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Lesotho illustrated the gap between Mandela’s principles and foreign policy realities.
As president, Mandela was ultimately responsible for South Africa’s foreign policy; however, it is difficult to attribute all actions to him. For example, the Lesotho intervention occurred while both he and the deputy president, Thabo Mbeki, were abroad and the minister of home affairs, Mangosuthu Buthelezi, served as acting head of state. But there is no doubt that the presidency tested Mandela’s convictions and his ability to consistently implement policy. As he turns 94, he still deserves credit for replacing the destructive policies of the apartheid era with those of nonviolence, cooperation and attention to human rights.
South Africa’s economic situation is currently less than ideal. The African National Congress (ANC) says that much work still needs to be done to ensure progress. Of particular concern is the persistence of large income inequalities and high rates of joblessness among the youth. Mandela’s birthday, which is also designated as a day of service, provides an excellent opportunity to reflect on actions to address some of the economic challenges that the country currently faces. Mandela’s hope was for the establishment of a nation that extended equal opportunities to all its people while maintaining high rates of economic growth. Though his policies were not perfect, he made large-scale economic reforms. His creativity offers an admirable example as South Africa continues to tackle inequality.
When Mandela became president in 1994, most people had been excluded from the benefits of past economic success. The minority white population (13 percent) was estimated to possess about 86 percent of the country’s land and 90 percent of its wealth. Whites earned, on average, 10 times more than blacks. Mandela faced the massive challenge of incorporating this disenfranchised majority while redeveloping a globally competitive economy. As the ANC put it in its Reconstruction and Development Programme of 1994, “We cannot successfully build the economy while millions do not have homes or jobs. And we cannot provide homes and jobs without rebuilding the economy.”
In addition to these domestic issues, the country’s economy had mostly stagnated—during the previous decade, average annual growth had been only about 1 percent, mostly a result of the years leading up to Mandela’s presidency, when South Africa had been increasingly isolated from the global economy under sanctions against apartheid. Mandela’s party, the ANC, had been debating policies of nationalization, so even as he entered office foreign investors and trading partners were hesitant about the country’s future economic policies.
Mandela’s presidency was marked by two significant efforts that showed his dedication to relieve these domestic economic tensions and to reassure the international community that South Africa was ready to again be a trustworthy economic partner. The first, the 1994 Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP), focused on alleviating the disenfranchisement caused by apartheid through increased government expenditures on education, health, housing and social welfare. At the same time, it also aimed to actually decrease the government’s deficit by remaining as fiscally conservative as possible.
Because the goals of the RDP ended up being difficult to attain, a second effort—the 1996 Growth, Employment and Redistribution Strategy— attempted to further liberalize the economy to create jobs and promote investment, trade and growth. Though its ambitious goals were not met during Mandela’s presidency, they set a precedent by balancing attempts to solve the pressing problem of inequality and low job prospects while also pursuing macroeconomic stability and global reintegration.
Though South Africa still faces many economic issues, since Mandela it has remained a strong economic force on the continent with great potential. It is the largest economy in Sub-Saharan Africa and its biggest intraregional importer and exporter—in 2010, it exported more than $12 billion worth of goods and imported $7 billion worth of goods from the rest of the continent. The Economist notes that it is the biggest source of foreign investment for other countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. Mandela’s economic legacy has ensured that South Africa first sought to reverse the effects of its history of disenfranchisement while also remaining an economic powerhouse and trusted investment destination on the continent.
The celebration of Mandela’s birthday and the international day of service in his honor provide an opportunity to reflect on how he became a great leader and public servant. The experiences of both Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi, who probably had the biggest influence on Mandela’s leadership style, provide key lessons. Gandhi—who, as the liberator of India, was Mandela’s primary role model—worked as a lawyer advocating for the rights of Asians in South Africa, where he developed his method of civil disobedience. Likewise, Mandela also worked as a lawyer defending the rights of native Africans against the apartheid regime.
In Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India, Joseph Lelyveld recounts how Mandela saw Gandhi’s nonviolent protest strategy as a model for the initial code of conduct within the African National Congress and its mass protests against apartheid. Mandela also cited Gandhi as influencing the ANC’s difficult decision to take up arms after having resisted violence since its founding in 1912. In Time magazine, Mandela quoted Gandhi: “Where choice is set between cowardice and violence, I would advise violence. . . . I prefer to use arms in defense of honor rather than remain the vile witness of dishonor.” Indeed, Mandela and the ANC used force in seeking to end apartheid—yet they used sabotage against government facilities rather than attacks against civilians “because it did not involve the loss of life and it offered the best hope for future race relations.”
Both Gandhi and Mandela were imprisoned for their struggles. Yet prison was where key negotiations with their oppressors began. Mandela’s conversations with prison guards helped him to understand the complexities of interracial relationships and the need for forgiveness. And though Gandhi himself was repeatedly imprisoned by the British, he extolled the ability to forgive. Mandela’s supreme example of forgiveness was given after his 27 years of imprisonment ended—as he related in an interview: “I did hate them for quite a long time. After all, they abused me physically and emotionally. They separated me from my wife, and it eventually broke my family up. . . . [But I] realized one day, breaking rocks, that they could take everything away from me, everything, but my mind and heart. Now, those things I would have to give away, and I simply decided I would not give them away.”
Due to these experiences of Mandela, influential leaders have marveled at his strong yet compassionate leadership style. Amazingly, Mandela’s Robben Island prison guards were invited to his inauguration as president. And later he showed the same humility in dealing with the failure of his administration to deliver on its initial promises of increased jobs and housing. During his presidency, he had the opportunity to make economic decisions that could have unfairly disadvantaged the white populations and accelerated efforts to meet the ANC’s goals for increased black ownership. However, he chose an inclusive, slower strategy that embodied his awareness as a leader concerned with the needs of all constituencies.
Finally, Mandela and the apartheid movement inspired people to give service to South Africa. And Mandela continues to motivate leaders to serve via Mandela Day, when individuals, groups and communities give 67 minutes of service to make their world a better place. The number “67” was chosen because Mandela “gave 67 years of his life to fighting for the rights of humanity” before officially retiring. Thus, on Mandela Day, volunteers around the world participate in diverse activities, ranging from school cleanups to health walks, and distribution of supplies to rural students. Hopefully, Mandela, as well as Gandhi, will continue to inspire great leaders today on Mandela’s birthday and on many Mandela Days to come.
In celebrating Mandela’s birthday, we focus on his great achievements and contributions to the world. From childhood, he was destined for greatness. He was born into a royal family, educated in good schools, and went on to become a political leader. Then his political activities sent him to prison for 27 years. From prison to presidency of post apartheid South Africa and today, he has become one of the world’s most honored and recognized statesmen—having been given many important awards, such as the Nobel Peace Prize, which drew international attention to his legacy of egalitarianism and reconciliation.
In 1993, Mandela, a black nationalist, and F. W. De Klerk, the former last white president of apartheid South Africa, were named co-winners of the Nobel Peace Prize for the role they played in ending apartheid and transforming South Africa into a democratic republic. The Nobel committee, when presenting the prize, applauded Mandela and De Klerk for “having chosen reconciliation rather than the alternative, which would inevitably have been an ever more bitter and bloodier conflict.” Though De Klerk and Mandela were former enemies, they chose to work together to make possible the peaceful transformation of a government that practiced racial segregation into one that practiced democracy and equality for all races.
Earlier, Mandela was at the forefront of the fight for democracy in South Africa. He suffered injustices on behalf of his people as he worked to end the oppressive apartheid regime built on racism. Yet, upon becoming president, he chose to put away bitterness and not dwell on the wounds of the past but to focus on rebuilding his nation. He demonstrated what it means to be true statesman and a leader worth emulating. Today, South Africa enjoys the fruit of his struggle. It is a democratic state and a gateway to Africa.
Mandela—whose name transcends age, race, religion and culture—continues to stand for peace. Thus, on July 18, his birthday, now commonly known as “Mandela Day,” people around the world perform community service and thus contribute to making the world a more peaceful place. Mandela, a Nobel laureate, will go down in history along with Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King Jr. and other peacemakers who fought nonviolently for human rights.