Will The Passing of Nelson Mandela Cause Racial Cohesion in South Africa to Unravel?



The health of 94-year-old Nelson Mandela, icon of post-apartheid South Africa, continues to decline, as it has declined for the past few years.  Speculation has abounded that racial tolerance in that country will collapse following the former president’s death.  Mandela, once in power, graciously spoke of creating a “rainbow nation” where race and tribe would no longer matter.  His life, many claim, holds the country’s various tribal and racial groups together in relative cohesion.  Without that glue, peaceful relations among these groups might unravel.

Mandela spent most of his long life fighting apartheid, a system of racial segregation that the Afrikaners designed to maintain White supremacy in South Africa and to preserve the country’s other racial/ethnic groups.  Apartheid effectively started in 1948, with the election of the D. F. Malan’s National Party, and the NP ruled the South African government for the next 46 years.

Mandela initially tried to fight White rule through means of non-violent protests inspired by the passive resistance of Mahatma Gandhi.  When this failed to work, he decided in 1955 that the ANC could only succeed through armed and violent resistance.  But, in the opinions of some in the African resistance, this did not go far enough, and the more violent Pan-African Congress formed in 1959.  This division showcases the two main strains in the political development of the African ruling class: one utilizing violence as one tool among many others to resist apartheid, the other primarily fighting the White government through violence.

Mandela remained incarcerated in various prisons from 1962 to 1990.  While initially very harsh, the conditions of his internment steadily improved as his fame and respect grew among sympathetic White politicians.  The apartheid government attempted to show their moderation by improving Mandela’s access to the outside world, but this only fed the “Free Mandela” movement even more.

So long as South Africa provided a bulwark against Communism in Africa during the Cold War, the West would tolerate the White apartheid government.  But when Communism collapsed in Europe in 1989, South Africa found itself completely ostracized by the rest of the world, and F. W. de Klerk negotiated with the ANC to end apartheid.  The government released Mandela from prison in 1990, and the country elected him president in 1994.

The Afrikaners descend from mostly Dutch and French Calvinists who settled the Cape in the 1600’s and 1700’s.  (Of course, these colonists also mixed with their Malay and African slaves, creating what would later be called the Coloured, Griqua, and Baster peoples.)  The British permanently took the colony from the Dutch in 1815, and from that time the Afrikaners felt marginalized.  In the 1830’s and 1840’s, in response to the end of slavery in the British Empire, thousands of Afrikaner Boers trekked from the Cape Colony with their slaves and founded an assortment of Boer states.  Great Britain cared little for these republics one way or another until miners found diamonds in the Transvaal in 1869, and this spelled the beginning of the end for Boer independence.  After two Boer wars—the last one a very nasty affair in which about 20 percent of the Afrikaner population died, many of them women and children—the British created the Union of South Africa.  Though the British had won control, the very determined Afrikaners focused their numbers, two-thirds of the White population, on winning political power.  Afrikaner nationalists achieved this in 1948, gradually establishing what would later be called apartheid and removing South Africa from the British Empire.


The 2nd Boer War killed 20% of the Afrikaner population and forged a nation that now faces extinction.

Could de Klerk have negotiated for the division of the country along racial and ethnic lines, thus preserving the various nationalities without causing their further exploitation? Or would a White, Afrikaner state prove unthinkable to all concerned, perhaps even to the Black-labor-dependent Afrikaners themselves?  It is unknown, but anyone with foresight could have seen that Black rule in South Africa would lead to the widespread abuse of Whites, particularly the Afrikaners, in the short run and prove disastrous for them in the long run.

After twenty years, we have not seen the disaster, but we have seen plenty of abuse.  Crime infests the land, and nearly every house is guarded by ADT security systems or their equivalent, German shepherd or boerboel guard dogs, and a brick wall topped with razor-sharp, metal spikes.  Rape remains so widespread that police stations face a shortage of rape kits.[1]  White farmers continue to die as gangs slaughter entire families.  It is no wonder that hundreds of thousands of Whites have fled the country since the end of apartheid, or that most people live no better than they did under White rule.


House in Benoni, near Johannesburg, typical in its security measures. Taken from Google Maps street view.

Still, Whites retain a disproportionate share of the wealth in South Africa (though a significant number have grown very poor, particularly Afrikaners), while only a small percentage of Blacks have moved into the middle class.

The first strain of Black government has so far ruled South Africa under the ANC.  They have attempted to show some tolerance for those who formerly denied them power.  But with conditions continuing to deteriorate, and with the promises of greater wealth for the common people falling very short, how long before the second strain of Black leadership takes charge, ruling with violence and repression?

It is only a matter of time before populists in the government, unable to improve the lot of the Black voters, will seize upon the perception of White wealth and privilege to gain power, or to retain power, and then drive the Whites out for good, or kill them outright.  This model had once helped Mugabe keep power in Zimbabwe.

Mandela’s death may well spark such a movement.


First of all, it is a pity to drag this dying man through the wringer of politics as he lies breathing his last breaths on this Earth.  I understand that the man lived a very political life, sacrificing his own family for his cause, and thus leaves himself open to this sort of discussion.  Still, we should really leave the man alone until he has died and people have paid their respects.

That said, I shall completely violate my own words and continue on with the subject: Mandela’s death, rather than divide South Africa, will likely spark a momentary commemoration and unity among the various ethnic groups.  After the memory fades, the current status quo is more likely to remain, and politics will remain a contest among different ethnic groups to gain a larger share of the spoils of government.  Why should the death of Mandela, who, frankly, might as well have died five years ago, spark any dramatic changes?

If the government drives the Whites from the country, then it will lose much of the country’s wealth.  It is easier for Blacks in power to use the White-dominated economy as a milk cow for their political projects.  They may rail against White privilege, they might even forcibly redistribute some wealth, but they aren’t likely to purposely destroy the White-dominated economy.  Besides, if the White people are gone, who could they blame for everyone’s problems?

In South Africa, the more tolerant and inclusive ‘strain’ of Black governance has always trumped the violent factions.


This assumes that people always govern themselves logically.  History has shown that mobs will seldom rule with wisdom and restraint.  Think of revolutionary France and Russia, among others.

We shall see.

[1] Dewey, Caitlin. “South Africa, once called ‘the world’s rape capital,’ is running out of rape kits.” Washington Post. washingtonpost.com, 5 Mar. 2013. Web. 11 June 2013. http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/worldviews/wp/2013/03/05/south-africa-once-called-the-worlds-rape-capital-is-running-out-of-rape-kits/

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