Heinz Klug: Reflections on Nelson Mandela's legacy

Dec. 6, 2013

Heinz Klug is a UW-Madison law professor and an honorary senior research associate in the School of Law at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa. Growing up in Durban, South Africa, he participated in the anti-apartheid struggle, spent 11 years in exile and returned to South Africa in 1990 as a member of the African National Congress Land Commission and researcher for Zola Skweyiya, chairperson of the ANC Constitutional Committee. He was also a team member on the World Bank mission to South Africa on Land Reform and Rural Restructuring. He has taught at UW-Madison since September 1996.

These are Klug's reflections on the history and legacy of anti-apartheid icon and former South African President Nelson Mandela, who died Thursday at age 95:

As an anti-apartheid activist in the mid-1970s, I thought of Nelson Mandela as a distant, imprisoned icon.

Before I went into exile in Botswana in 1979 the only image I had of Mandela came from snatched glances of smuggled pamphlets with outdated, poorly reproduced photos of Mandela in the prison yard on Robben Island.

The possession of any images or words of Mandela were illegal in apartheid South Africa, and although I had read a line or two from his most famous speeches, he was a distant figure, almost mythic – certainly not a man we ever thought we would see in person, much less vote for as the country’s first democratically elected president.

Heinz Klug

Heinz Klug

Like most activists, I had no expectation that we would ever see Mandela walk free. When that moment came I was in Lusaka, Zambia, at the headquarters of the African National Congress. With millions of others around the world we watched in anticipation, waiting until Mandela finally appeared on our small black and white TV, walking out of the gates of the prison with his fist held high, claiming both his freedom and asserting his militant rejection of apartheid, a system that denied basic rights to most South Africans based on the color of their skin.

The inspiration South Africans draw from Mandela is rooted in his extraordinary history.

As a young man, already Mandela refused to accept the limits the world placed on him.

Expelled from university for a student protest, Mandela left his home village of Qunu, found work as a security guard on the gold mines and began studying to become a lawyer – eventually joining Oliver Tambo to found South Africa’s first black law firm. At the same time he became a founding member of the ANC Youth League, rejecting the existing ANC policy of polite negotiations and joining other militants to call for active resistance to apartheid. Following the practices of passive resistance from Mahatma Gandhi, Mandela became volunteer-in-chief of the ANC’s defiance campaign against unjust laws in the 1950s.

Following the Sharpeville Massacre and the outlawing of the ANC in 1960, Mandela went underground, calling on the government to hold a national convention to address the issues facing the nation.

When this was rejected Mandela turned to armed action as the only means left open to force the government into negotiations, becoming the first commander-in-chief of Umkhonto we Sizwe – which would become the armed wing of the ANC.

Arrested in 1962, Mandela was eventually sentenced to life in prison after telling the court that, “I have fought against black domination. And I have fought against white domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But, if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

Mandela’s unconditional release made it clear that apartheid’s time had come, yet it would take another four years before South Africa’s first democratic elections.

“The danger facing South Africa is that the political and economic classes that govern and shape global opinion on South Africa fail to recognize that it is the perpetuation of gross inequalities that is the greatest threat to Mandela’s legacy of shepherding the creation of a constitutional democracy in South Africa.”

Heinz Klug

In this time, Mandela faced both demands to abandon negotiations, as evidence emerged of the apartheid regime’s role in promoting violent conflict in black communities, and pressure to accept the regime’s demands for the recognition of group-rights as an element of any new constitutional arrangement.

Even when he broke off negotiations with the regime Mandela recognized that the military might of the regime meant that negotiations remained the only way to avoid an even more destructive civil war.

When the assassination of Chris Hani in 1993 brought the country to the brink of disaster, it was Mandela who went on national television and called for calm. When he reopened negotiations with the regime the ANC proposed a five-year transition, with guarantees for apartheid civil servants and a government of national unity which would include a role for former apartheid rulers in the government.

Sir Bob Hepple, who had worked with Mandela when he was underground in the early 1960s describes a meeting with Mandela in London in 1996 saying that Mandela had no illusions, telling an invited group of South African expatriates that “We made a historic compromise. Nobody won. We’ve agreed to live under a democratic Constitution and that is all that happened.”

Elected president after South Africa’s first democratic election in April 1994, Mandela embraced national reconciliation as a means of bringing South Africans together.

After he stepped down in 1999, Mandela continued to place principle before self and in the face of government inaction on the devastating HIV/AIDS crisis Mandela publicly acknowledged his own failure to recognize the significance of the epidemic while he was in office and called on the government to change its policies on the disease.

Despite these efforts, the legacies of apartheid continue to define South African society.

Government programs to address poverty, lack of housing, failed education and vast unemployment have become bedeviled by incompetence, corruption and increasing levels of inequality.

Despite the successful creation of many new institutions and policies designed to address apartheid’s legacy very little progress has been made in eradicating the structural conditions of apartheid, including the allocation of land ownership, the physical structure of the apartheid urban landscape and real economic opportunity – outside of a small emerging black middle class.

The danger facing South Africa is that the political and economic classes that govern and shape global opinion on South Africa fail to recognize that it is the perpetuation of gross inequalities that is the greatest threat to Mandela’s legacy of shepherding the creation of a constitutional democracy in South Africa.