History has often and will continue to ascribe an “untouchable” status to many political figures. In the USA, to question the deified Washington, Jefferson or even Lincoln is to assault the very core of US society. Mandela, of course, will not prove an exception to this rule, where for South Africans emotion is acutely tied up with bolstering a romantic image of a national hero who determined the fate of the nation. This, ironically, results in the imprisonment of intellectual discussion, providing little scope for rational argumentation offering alternative accounts. Yet the surface remains there to be scratched, and isn’t the cause of intellectual freedom worth the emotional backlash that inevitably comes with questioning the centrality of a national hero?
Ultimately, one man with an inspirational story is not sufficient if his words fall on deaf ears. In the case of Mandela under the rule of P. W. Botha, this was self-evident. When the pair met on the 5th of July 1989, P. W. Botha ordered Mandela to make a public renunciation of violent black resistance, a position Mandela ultimately could not take. National Party intransigence was typified in Botha’s famous Rubion Speech which rendered prospects of a non-racial election a far, far off prospect. In other words, Mandela could achieve nothing of substance without a receptive National Party leader found in de Klerk. De Klerk pursued unwavering, radical measures to dismantle apartheid despite this resulting in the National Party receiving its worst electoral result in 1989 since 1953. Such courage on the part of de Klerk in not succumbing to white Afrikaaner opposition, a position many other National Party politicians would not have dreamed of, is too often given undue credit in popular accounts idolising Mandela.
Furthermore, the economic unsustainability of apartheid had to be addressed, regardless of the position of Mandela. Having shifted from an agricultural to a manufacturing economy, apartheid simply did not work. South African manufacturers required a stable, skilled and urbanised labour force that apartheid policies including influx control and pass laws, by prohibiting the movement of Africans in urban areas, did not provide. The 1953 Bantu Education Act intentionally provided an inferior, segregated education for Africans in the homelands to prevent them acquiring skills that could threaten white employment. Thus the advent of a skills-based economy from the 1960s onwards rendered the limited pool of white labour insufficient. Moreover, apartheid artificially limited the size of the domestic market by forcing a growing black population to live at barely subsistence level, while a declining white population was increasingly saturated. Consequently, to attribute the fall of apartheid to Mandela and Mandela alone, while popular, is a gross historical over-simplification. Had it not just ran its course?
Black resistance was effective in further exacerbating a declining apartheid economy, in acts such as ‘political stayaways’ during the Soweto Uprising and later on. Attacks on Administration Boards, the infrastructure to maintain apartheid, undermined the ability to implement apartheid in the short term and the costs of continuously fixing the damage were burdensome in the long term. In 1985, resistance forced a state of emergency to be declared in 36 magisterial districts. As the myth goes, this arduous, risk-ridden resistance was inspired by Mandela’s story, and thus attributable to him. But this is surely overly idealistic. Ultimately, through no fault of his own, this resistance was in no way directly led by Mandela. To state, as is commonly the case, that Mandela indirectly inspired grass roots resistance in my view defies logic. Was not the daily discrimination, inequality and exclusion experienced by the African population enough to generate a need for change? Mandela can hardly be considered the only man to have reached this conclusion.
Nevertheless, it had always been the case and likely will continue to be, that history will be abhorrently reduced to the detriment of rational debate. In this sense, Mandela is just one of many, special only in the sense that his without doubt honourable character worthy of respect will work only to make the problem of history’s “untouchables” even more difficult to overcome.