The mining community in Canada probably has more connections to South Africa than any other group in the country, and so the death of Nelson Mandela on Dec. 5 provided many miners here with time to reflect on the man’s leadership, as well as the tortuous history and unsettled future of South Africa, with a natural focus on the fate of the country’s tremendous mineral endowment.
For readers of a certain age, two of the biggest lifetime geopolitical surprises have been the rapid fall of the Soviet Union and the transition of South Africa from an apartheid state to a relatively well-functioning democratic free market — without having passed through a payback-fuelled civil war in between. As has been discussed at length around the world, the latter is largely due to Mandela’s moderate policies and conciliatory leadership once he assumed the South African presidency in 1994.
In order to maintain social peace and keep foreign investment flowing, once they were voted into power, Mandela and the African National Congress did not nationalize South Africa’s mines, and that decision had a profound effect on the careers and life choices of so many in the mining community, both inside and outside South Africa.
The “Black Economic Empowerment” program that was later settled upon in the country provided a middle way between an unacceptable apartheid-era status quo and outright nationalization that likely would have provoked a collapse in the mining industry and accelerated emigration of many of the nation’s most capable people.
And Mandela’s personal conduct in his presidency — non-corrupt, democratic, conciliatory, relatively non-tribal and retiring, instead of dying in office — created an alternate model for African leadership that contrasts with the continent’s typical strongman approach.
Despite the vast outpouring of goodwill around the world after Mandela’s passing, his approach to post-colonial statecraft is by no means universally praised in Southern Africa. While Mandela is now the icon of “truth and reconciliation” in Africa, that other great lion of the African independence movement, Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe, still stands tall and is beloved by millions as the living embodiment of the harder line of Reconquista, with all its particular emotional attractions.
If you listen only to Western media, you might think the biggest cheers at the Mandela memorial services at FNB stadium in Johannesburg were for U.S. President Barack Obama’s speech. But no, the most exuberant standing ovation from the 90,000 in attendance was for the introduction of Mugabe, while boos greeted South African president Jacob Zuma, inheritor of the Mandela mantle.
It’s a good reminder that things can always go several different ways politically in South Africa, depending on what kind of charismatic leader rules the roost.