A South African hero

Warren Coats Contributor
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It was interesting being in Kenya this past week while the World Cup football (soccer) matches were being played near-by in South Africa. When Kenyan’s interrupted their viewing of a match to converse with me and learned that I was an American they inevitably wanted to know how I thought President Obama was doing. I hated telling them. The current World Cup in South Africa, however, made viewing Clint Eastwood’s “Invictus” on the plane on the way home even more moving than it would have been anyway. The movie dramatizes South Africa’s first post apartheid president, Nelson Mandela’s, decision to save and embrace South Africa’s national soccer team, “Springboks,” so loved by white South African’s and thus hated by black South Africans, as an element of his program of national reconciliation.

The wisdom, courage, and compassion of leaders like Mandela, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr. overwhelm me. These leaders placed the well being of their people, their countries, and mankind more generally above narrower concerns for justice or revenge. They looked forward not backward. Mandela understood that his fellow black South Africans would have richer more fulfilling lives if they embraced and worked with it’s white citizens rather than simply displacing and replacing them in positions of power. He also knew that that would be a hard sell.

I remember well some worldly wise “friends” telling me in the 1970s that there was no chance in hell that white South Africans would allow blacks to vote and thus turn over the government to blacks. They would fight to the death rather than give in. My “friends” were reflecting not only the view that South Africa’s blacks were incapable of ruling the country efficiently and justly, but that those in power for all those years would never give it up to anyone. In part my “friends” were ignorant of the actual attitudes of many of South Africa’s whites toward South African blacks. And no one expected a Nelson Mandela to take over the presidency. It is still too early to know whether post apartheid South Africa will succeed in efficient and just governance, but that it even has a chance is the result of the belief and commitment of Mandela and the last white President F. W. de Klerk and others that the nation must rise above the hatred and score settling for the injustices of decades of the oppression of one people by another if it was to become great (or even survive).

My old “friends” were reflecting an all too human and common attitude of those who have ruled and dominated others for many years. They were reflecting the fear that the “ruling class” might not be able to stay in power on the basis of merit alone and thus needed to become more and more repressive toward the groups that might challenge them. Consider, for example, the outcry of some older American immigrants—we might call them the decedents of Mayflower Christians who came here to find religious freedom and less oppressive government—toward new immigrants, legal as well as illegal. The Mexicans and other Latin’s flooding into the U.S., for example, are not bringing an alien culture with them. They are part of that broader Anglo culture dominated by the Roman Catholic and other Christian Churches and the values they hold. So what is it that our old guard nativists fear? In part, perhaps largely, they fear the loss of their position in society. But why should they fear that in the “land of the free” if they hold their positions by merit? We must be suspicious of the motives of such people.

Before he was president of South Africa, Mandela was in prison for 27 years for opposing the white South African government as a leader of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the armed wing of the African National Congress. He was released Feb. 11, 1990, and led the ANCs participation in the negotiations that resulted in a new constitution opening participation in the government to all South Africans. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize with de Klerk in 1994. It was not easy for black South Africans to forgive a lifetime of oppression by whites. But for a man who had spent 27 of the most productive years of his life in prison to not only forgive but to lead his fellow black South Africans to deep and genuine reconciliation with their white oppressors in the interests of all South Africans is extraordinary and the mark of a truly great man.

Great leaders like Mandela, Gandhi, King, and Ronald Reagan, another of my heroes, were optimists who believed that the world could be made a better place for everyone and devoted themselves to that task. Those who out of fear (or plain malice) spread misinformation about others—e.g., Muslims who demonize America and Americans who demonize Islam—can create the very world they fear if we take them seriously. They endanger all of us and potentially make the world a worse place. I stand in awe of the greatness of Nelson Mandela, who could rise so far above his own suffering and the injustices against him to see and promote the higher principles that help make people and society decent. “Invictus” is a deeply inspiring and moving movie.

Warren Coats retired from the International Monetary Fund in 2003, where he led technical assistance missions to central banks in more than twenty countries. He is currently advising the Government of Southern Sudan on preparations for its own currency should become an independent nation next year as a consultant to Deloitte/USAID. His most recent book, “One Currency for Bosnia: Creating the Central Bank of Bosnia and Herzegovina,” was published in November 2007. He has a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Chicago and lives in Bethesda, Md.