To Mandela / Sheng Hong


July 18th is the Nelson Mandela International Day. It is a day set up by the UN convention in 2009 to celebrate the achievements of a great African leader, Nelson Mandela. This year’s Mandela Day also marks his 100th birthday. He is probably the only person that received so much honor in the International community. He deserves it. We can say, he is one of the greatest statesman, or the greatest man in the 20th century.

Why so? There are great thinkers in the world who instilled the essential values of the human society but never turn such values into human actions; there are great statesmen in the world who act on their moral values but with sacrifices of blood and fire; there are some big power leaders who influenced the prospect of the world but are only able to do so on the foundation laid by forebears’ efforts in establishing the institutional structure and state; there are some great leaders from transitional countries that succeeded in shifting from a planned economy to a market economy, but only managed to do so by starting from centuries of hatred.

South Africa is a land filled with centuries of hatred regarding race. Early as the 17th century, the Dutch East India Company started colonizing South Africa. Later, its expansion was met with resistance from the locals. Multiple battles were witnessed, resulting in the defeat of the locals and the loss of their land. The British joined the grabbing of colonial interest, finding themselves fighting the South African Dutch(the Boer) , and eventually forming a white state jointly governed by the Boer and the British colonists. In the white man’s rule, the blacks were discriminated and abused. What’s more irritating is that such discrimination was inscribed in the so-called “laws”, which is a state run institution undertaking oppression and discrimination on the basis of race. Such oppression and discrimination include limit on the personal freedom of the blacks, limit on their acquiring land and other properties, limit on entering into certain professions, and limited access to certain areas.

For example, if a black man wished to leave his residential area, he would need a pass issued by a local official; a black man were not allowed to buy land beyond his original residential area; a black man was restricted from taking a certain technical profession; and a black man was not allowed to enter certain public places. The South African blacks took years of fight and struggle against this racial oppression and discrimination. Such struggles were met with brutal suppression. In the 1960 Sharpeville massacre where the blacks demonstrated before the police station in order to fight against the pass laws, resulting in 69 casualties and 180 wounded as the police opened fire. In the 1976 Soweto uprising where black residents protested against the Afrikaans Medium Decree of 1974, the police opened fire and killed some 500~1000 men. Mandela chose to fight with arms before the white man government and its brutality. In the arms fights, there were also cases where the blacks killed innocent white people for pure revenge.

In such a country, it seemed that whoever took office might use the state machine to crush the other race. However, Mandela has maintained that his fight was not to establish a country for the blacks, but a society where all races and ethnicities could live equally and harmoniously. At his inauguration ceremony, he invited three prison guards who treated him the most brutally, and gave them hugs in front of the audience. This is a ceremony of reconciliation. Mandela kept the white guards that were set up to protect his white predecessors. He also insisted keeping the national soccer team that was mainly made up by white players. When a white terrorist murdered an outstanding black statesman Chris Hani, Mandela emphasized that the person who reported this murder to the police was a white female, thus avoiding labeling it as a racial conflict but a personal one.

Most importantly, along with Desmond Tutu and Alex Boraine, Mandela created the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that was dedicated to condemning crimes, avoiding revenge, amending the past, and escorting in the future. There are three tasks, they are: 1) The Human Rights Violations Committee investigated human rights abuses that occurred between 1960 and 1994; 2) The Reparation and Rehabilitation Committee was charged with restoring victims’ dignity and formulating proposals to assist with rehabilitation; and 3) The Amnesty Committee considered applications from individuals who applied for amnesty in accordance with the provisions of the Act. By doing so, the human rights violations were corrected, and justice was restored while guaranteeing that no revenge against white people would occur. Reconciliation is, therefore, achieved. The advance towards harmony among multiple races in South Africa does not get due attention from the world. It is worth watching and studying.

On the other hand, it is very difficult for areas where there are multiple races and ethnicities to solve their accumulated feud, even in a democratic society. As Professor Buchanan pointed out before, when there was multiple ethnic groups with distinct cultural features in a society, the vote in the majority rule could not solve the problem of the tyranny of the majority. The reason is, it is obvious who would win when there’s a simple majority of a certain race; it does not make any sense when the majority wins according to the voting rules. In some countries and regions, ethnic cleansing happens sometimes in order to get the majority vote. Once the majority took power, the state machine will be utilized to impose violence and oppress the minorities. Back in ancient Greece, such problem existed. When the poor took power by their majority, the properties of the rich, even their life, were deprived by the state coercive power.

When Mandela was first released from the prison, he worried that the voting system of the white people was necessary to maintain in order for the white people not to be bullied by the black residents. He said he understood such a mentality, and he finally found a solution that would work for both the white and black citizens. This is a great triumph. Why? Compared to other parts of the world where ethnic wars and conflicts claimed millions of lives, such as the former Yugoslavia, the former Soviet Union, the hatred between India and Pakistan, and the everlasting conflict between Israel and Palestine, what Mandela did in South Africa is beyond comparison. Now we know that peace is often neglected, but it is more difficult to start than wars.

Mandela was President of South Africa for only five years. It was in this five years time that the South African society gradually got rid of ethnical hatred, the society transformed, and the cultural convergence was set into motion. A new South Africa emerged. During the white people rule, South Africa was resisted and sanctioned by many other major countries in the world. When Mandela was in office, he adopted many liberal economic policies. These policies were criticized, and the most severe criticism condemned Mandela for opening the country for foreign capital invasion that crushed the national industries. An act of betraying the economic interest of South Africa in nature. This criticism was apparently based on an obsolete development economics footing that overestimated the negative factor of external capital and underestimated the wisdom and diligence of the people. It was proven later that the economy of South Africa has grown steadily since 1994, inspire of some short term fluctuations.

Economic growth rate of South Africa (1995-2017)


Ever since 1995, South Africa’s economy has been growing steadily. The fluctuation or recession in the middle of that period was due to the fact that mining accounted for a big proportion to the economy and it was influenced by price fluctuations. If we take a closer look at the period between 1995 and 2000, the economy grew even better than later periods. Let’s not forget that this society was going through a grand transition. If we put it in comparison with the negative growth of many transitional economies of the former Soviet Union bloc, we would understand how much South Africa has achieved.

Of course, South Africa is far from a perfect society after the transition. There are still many problems. There is room for improvement for the management by black people; thanks to the unfair order imposed on them by the white people, they have inherited a tradition of looking down upon order; some white people have chosen to migrate; needless to say that the African National Congress is flawed, which leads to dictatorial rulers, etc.. However, such problems are understandable and solvable if we put them in the context of a country that went through peaceful reconciliation, democratization, and economic liberalization that guaranteed the positive growth of South Africa.  Till this day, policemen gunning down blacks regularly takes place in the US, while we seldom see it in South Africa. We have also seen that the African National Congress forced the scandalous and long time occupant of the presidency, Zuma. It shows that the African National Congress is still an organization that can act effectively on constraining power. This is the Mandela’s legacy.

Mandela told us that a person who have suffered so much from racial hatred, abuse, and incarceration is still capable of embracing his perpetrators; a society that was buried deep in centuries of hatred is still capable of marching towards reconciliation without the seemingly unavoidable war; a society that goes through such profound transitions is still capable of maintaining steady economic growth with our falling into recession; and an economy that is of such small scale is still capable of bringing about prosperity by undertaking liberal and opening-up policies towards the world economic giants and capital tycoons. Mandela said he was no saint. We see his as a common man. To err is human, the the greatest human is the one that errs the least.

I wrote this to commemorate Mandela’s 100th birthday.

Translated by Mr. MA Junjie

First published by FT Chinese on July 20th

Author: flourishflood

Economist, Confucianist

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