Editorial: Nelson Mandela at 90
In his lifetime, Nelson Mandela has been characterized as everything from a terrorist threat to South Africa’s former apartheid regime, to a walking, breathing expression of the best of human possibilities.
The Nobel Prize winner, who turns 90 today, has carved a complex legacy that few in any century can match. He suffered in prison for 27 years in outright rebellion against South Africa’s then-racist government, yet emerged as the pragmatic architect of the country’s multiracial democracy.
Think about this remarkable accomplishment: As a prisoner, he negotiated both his release and the blueprint that kept South Africa from a new cycle of persecution and retribution under nonwhite rule. And for those achievements, he shared the Nobel Prize with F.W. De Klerk, South Africa’s last white president and the man who restored his freedom.
Today, South Africa is at a political and economic crossroads. Nearly 10 years have passed since Mr. Mandela, at the pinnacle of his political power, stepped away from the presidency. Next year, President Thabo Mbeki will step down at the end of his second term. His former deputy, Jacob Zuma, who succeeded him as party leader, is presumed to be the country’s next president.
By far, South Africa is the richest, most developed sub-Saharan democracy, which sets it apart from many of its neighbors, most notably Zimbabwe and the unpredictable Robert Mugabe.
Yet the country is riddled with some of the worst violent crime outside a war zone, a high incidence of HIV infections, chronic poverty and brutal anti-immigrant conflicts. Mr. Mbeki, who is generally described as an elitist and arrogant policy wonk, hasn’t developed the policy or demonstrated the inspiration to confront these challenges effectively. The promise of Mr. Mandela’s South Africa has waned and patience is growing thin.
Mr. Mandela’s place in history stems from his uncommon leadership. He was the right man, in the right place, at the right time. South Africa has a future, but unfortunately it has only one Nelson Mandela.