In 1966, Senator Robert F. Kennedy delivered a speech at the University of Cape Town. He began by stating that he was there to talk about a country settled by the Dutch, which fought a bloody war of independence, and had then become an international pariah for its treatment of black people. He allowed a tense moment to pass and then added, “I’m here tonight to talk about the United States of America.” To an extent greater than most Americans recognize, but which Nelson Mandela understood implicitly, the United States and South Africa are products of kindred histories: both founded by settlers, both emerged from wars to overthrow British colonialism, both forged national identities on their respective frontiers. Before the election of Barack Obama allowed this country, albeit briefly, to indulge the idea of postracialism, Mandela was revered here as a proxy for the American past. His capacity to emerge from twenty-seven years in prison without bitterness broadcast the hope that this country’s own racial trespasses might be forgiven.
If the American reverence for Mandela is at least partly self-interested, the country has not just wandered into someone else’s story. Prior to becoming Prime Minister of South Africa, Jan Smuts had studied the issues of race and federalism at the heart of the American Civil War in hopes of avoiding the same outcome. Years later, the architecture of apartheid was explicitly modelled on America’s Jim Crow system of segregation. Decades before Reagan rejected sanctions against the regime or Dick Cheney denounced Mandela as a terrorist, this country had planted its feet firmly on the wrong side of South African history. When Mandela declined to press charges for the past, it was not just white South Africans he was absolving.
The twentieth century produced a tiny number of figures—King, Gandhi—who changed world history through the weight of their moral example, and an equally small number of heads of state—Walesa, Havel—whose emergence was as intimately tied to a collective realization of freedom. But only Nelson Mandela’s name would appear on both lists. In the tide of remembrances that began Thursday, Mandela has invariably been compared to Martin Luther King, Jr. President Obama’s borrowed King’s language about the moral arc of the universe bending toward justice in his homage to Mandela. Yet it’s one thing to make forgiveness an element of a humanitarian movement; it’s quite another to enact it as public policy. King sagely and sincerely presented racial reconciliation as a function of Christian love; Mandela knew that beyond his own spiritual inclinations racial reconciliation was an imperative of national survival.
Mandela’s release from prison and the collapse of apartheid were direct consequences of the demise of the Soviet Union; the South African regime could no longer rely upon its anticommunism as a counterbalance to its miserable human-rights record. Like the civil-rights movement in the United States, the racial struggles in South Africa were intertwined with the efforts of that country’s Communists to build radical cross-racial coalitions. (It is not coincidental that beyond their common faith in forgiveness, King and Mandela both saw their efforts dismissed as part of a left-wing conspiracy.) King’s activism was informed by the organizing insights of former Communists like Bayard Rustin and Stanley Levison. Mandela’s formative relationship was with Joe Slovo, of the South African Communist Party, which had been an enemy of apartheid for decades. (Slovo’s wife, Ruth First, was killed in 1982, when the South African police sent her a letter bomb.) On the other side, the collapse of the U.S.S.R.—long a supporter of independence movements on the African continent—halved the political options of any emerging black-led government that would take root in South Africa. The irony of the negotiations between former South African President F. W. de Klerk and Mandela, his successor, is that despite their vastly differing histories they arrived at the bargaining table for precisely the same reason: the end of the Cold War left them with few other options.
It’s also worth thinking about Mandela as simply the most successful of his generation of anticolonial radicals, many of whose names are scarcely known in this country. Those peers of his who are known—Castro and Arafat, for instance—are widely reviled. King has become the default comparison for Mandela but for a large swath of his life the more apt American parallel was the late-life Malcolm X. His advocacy of armed struggle against the apartheid government was not an isolated foray into radicalism; it was consistent with the tactics of his cohort. The forces that pushed the A.N.C. toward violent engagement were akin to the forces that inspired the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.
Mandela’s twenty-seven years in prison condemned the South African regime in a way few could have predicted at the time of his sentencing. But it also allowed him to view the trajectory of other anticolonial movements from the sidelines. When he was sworn in as President, he had the perspective of three decades of postcolonial history, much of it validating the idea that reconciliation held more promise than the decidedly less charitable route that states like Zimbabwe took. No figure could garner Mandela’s moral standing by simply pantomiming forgiveness out of necessity. He believed in the redemptive power of forgiveness. But he also recognized that it was the only route that lay between civil war and the mass exodus of the moneyed, educated class of white people who were integral to the economy.
Contrary to the broad narratives about his tenure, that move was not universally lauded in South Africa or abroad. Despite its overlapping relationship with South Africa’s Communist Party, the A.N.C. commonly found itself outflanked by more radical black organizations. After apartheid was dismantled, those elements viewed Mandela’s emphasis on reconciliation as placating whites at the expense of the black South Africans who remained exiled at the economic periphery. In the United States, it was not uncommon to hear his allies in African-American political circles—some of whom had spent decades fighting for his freedom—grumble that the “new” Mandela was too cozy with corporations that had shown little concern for human-rights issues during apartheid. But it was difficult to hear the strain of discontent given the decibel of the applause.
It’s entirely reasonable that the first black President of the United States began his public career agitating on behalf of the man who became the first black President of South Africa. It’s also consistent that Barack Obama emerged as a Presidential contender on the strength of the Mandela-esque speech he delivered to the 2004 Democratic National Convention, in which he opined that there was no black America or white America, simply the United States of America. Such sentiment was no truer in post-apartheid South Africa than it was in the United States that night, but it does suggest the political potency of redemption. Mandela has been praised in this country largely for the moral principles he calls to mind. A good part of that adoration, though, is owed to the moral felonies he allowed this country to forget.
It was Mandela’s good fortune that his moment inverted the demands commonly placed upon a politician’s shoulders. His country needed him to publicly and explicitly act on his firmest convictions, not bend them on the altar of expediency. Mandela emerged at that rare point in history where idealism and pragmatism were practically indistinguishable.