What Mandela meant

Mural outside the house of former South African President Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg. REUTERS/Mujahid Safodien

Nicholas Wapshott

Nelson Mandela will be remembered as the person who, more than any other, brought an end to apartheid, the heartless policy of “separate development” in which white, black and South Asian South Africans were obliged to live apart.

It is part of his towering achievement that the very notion of racial segregation is anathema to democrats throughout the civilized world. He will be mourned as a freedom fighter and the father of his nation, whose wisdom, patience and courage tormented his oppressors and finally drove them to accept that racial discrimination should have no place in a system of government.

Along with eight other conspirators, in 1964 Mandela was accused of sabotage and armed insurrection against the apartheid state. (He admitted sabotage but denied conspiring to violently overthrow the government.) He spent the next 18 years caged in primitive conditions on Robben Island and a further six in Pollsmoor Prison. Outside the prison walls, the government insisted on “grand apartheid,” the creed that insisted that whites, “natives,” “Asians” and “coloreds” should live in separate areas. Education, medicine, public services, and public spaces and buildings were similarly apportioned by race.

The genius of Mandela lay in the power of his extraordinary character. From his lone prison cell, where he was allowed a single outside visitor and one heavily censored letter every six months, his example was used to undermine the legitimacy of apartheid. Outside of South Africa, his imprisonment became a symbol of racial oppression. His release from prison in October 1989 led directly to the collapse of white rule. His election as president concluded a dark and bitter chapter in the African continent’s history.

But Mandela’s life story has meaning well beyond his role as the liberator of South Africa. His release after 27 years in prison, many of them in solitary confinement, came to mark the final victory for multi-racialism as a dominant ideology in democratic countries. So long as apartheid’s spiteful creed continued — it was brought to an abrupt end thanks to a coalition of giant personalities including Mandela, the final segregationist president of South Africa F.W. de Klerk,  and, much to her own and everyone else’s surprise, Margaret Thatcher — the prospect of citizens being treated differently by the government according to skin color remained. Race still plays a large part in politics, but it is rarely awarded the preeminent prominence in dictating the formulation of laws that was evident until late into the twentieth century.

It is hard to imagine today that such poisonous theories ever held sway. Yet until the success of the Civil Rights movement in America it was commonplace for racial epithets to be bandied about, even in Congress. Here is the Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, running for president in 1948: “On the question of social intermingling of the races, our people draw the line.” And: “All the laws of Washington and all the bayonets of the Army cannot force the Negro into our homes, into our schools, our churches and our places of recreation and amusement.” (You could not tell from Thurmond’s public utterances he was a closet miscegenator. He impregnated a 15-year-old black girl, a servant in his parents’ home, when he was 22. She secretly gave birth to his illegitimate daughter, Essie Mae Washington-Williams, who kept the truth to herself until Thurmond’s death.)

Before World War Two, racial theorizing was almost respectable. This is the transatlantic flier Charles Lindbergh on why America should not defend democracies against Hitler and Mussolini: “This is not a question of banding together to save the White race against foreign invasion.” What was needed was a “Western Wall of race and arms” to guard against “the infiltration of inferior blood.” Lindbergh learned to put a gloss on his racism from his guru, the French pioneer of organ transplants Alexis Carrel, who believed “that the most highly civilized races — the Scandinavians, for example — are white…. In France, the populations of the north are far superior to those of the Mediterranean shores.”

Carrel was just a short step away from the racialist theories underpinning Nazism that dubbed Germans “the master race” and listed other “races” and “sub-races” in a strict pecking order, all the way from “Untermensch” (sub-humans) to blond Aryans. It is hard to credit today that a political movement inspired by racial principles led to the methodical slaughter just 70 years ago of six million Jews simply because they were Jewish. The defeat of Nazism in 1945 placed all racial theorizing off-limits and since then those who have dared introduce race into their thinking have quickly found themselves pariahs.

One is James Watson, the Nobel-winning molecular biologist, geneticist, and zoologist and, with others, discoverer of the structure of DNA, who declared, “[I am] inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa [because] all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours — whereas all the testing says not really.” He was forced to stand down from his post as head of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.

Richard Hernstein and Charles Murray joined the outcasts when, in their 1994 book The Bell Curve, they appeared to suggest that race and intelligence were linked. The New York Times’s Bob Herbert described the work as “a scabrous piece of racial pornography masquerading as serious scholarship” and that “Mr. Murray gets his kicks by thinking up ways to drape the cloak of respectability over the obscene and long-discredited views of the world’s most rabid racists.”

A more recent example is Jason Richwine, who won a doctorate from Harvard suggesting that Hispanics had lower intelligence than “native whites.” When, as a fellow of the conservative think tank the Heritage Foundation, he crunched the immigration reform numbers and came up with a sum far larger than earlier estimates, his dubious methodology was scrutinized and the racial basis of his PhD thesis came to light. When Heritage distanced itself from Richwine’s racial theories, he was obliged to resign, though not before inflicting untold damage on the Washington bastion of conservative ideology. Harvard has yet to act.

Those who harbor racial theories that cause them to blurt out hurtful epithets also place themselves beyond the pale. When former employees of the television cook and restaurateur Paula Deen from Savannah, Georgia, accused her of using the “n” word, she offered a blustering excuse. “That’s just not a word that we use … as time has gone on. Things have changed since the Sixties in the south.” In an attempt to save her career, her company stated, “[Deen] was born 60 years ago when America’s South had schools that were segregated, different bathrooms, different restaurants, and Americans rode in different parts of the bus.” But being an old school racist is no longer an excuse. The Food Network and a food company that used Deen as a spokesman quickly dropped her. Wal-Mart Stores, which carries a variety of Deen-branded products, also severed ties.

It is against the Mandela standard of racial equality and tolerance that the recent Supreme Court rulings on the Arizona voter registration law, affirmative action, and the Voting Rights Act are judged. The justices found it unlawful by 7-2 for Arizona to demand proof of citizenship, a device that many thought was racist and designed to prevent Native Americans and Latinos from voting.

The question of whether it is lawful for schools to try to balance their racial intake by favoring one race over another offered the justices an intriguing conundrum: is it moral to use racial discrimination to undo generations of racial discrimination? Little wonder that the justices fudged their answer, ruling by 7-1 that universities may continue considering applicants’ race to ensure racial diversity.

The court’s narrow decision to allow southern states, whose institutional racism in the past meant openly deterring non-whites from voting, to make changes to their voting procedure without Justice Department approval raises similar arguments to those over affirmative action: when is it safe to assume racism is no longer prevalent and when should efforts to make the system fair for all races be abandoned? In light of the prevalence of bogus “voter fraud” legislation intended to deter non-whites from voting in 2012, the justices’ 5-4 verdict may come back to bite them. The Mandela standard will be used, too, to judge the fairness of the immigration reform legislation currently going through Congress.

The rulings and changes currently being decided in Washington will all be judged on Mandela’s unfaltering standard. “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion,” he said. “People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”