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Greetings, my fellow port swillers!

I suppose it behooves ol’ Robbo to say a word or two about the apotheosis passing of Nelson Mandela this weekend.

Back in the mid ’80’s, when ol’ Robbo was in college at the Glorious People’s Soviet of Middletown CT, Apartheid  was one of the perennial fashionable politickal causes.  We had our little “shanty town” out on the front lawn.   We had our bands of student radicals hippy punks who sought to break up Board of Trustee meetings in protest.   The word “divest” was on everyone’s lips.   The morality of abolishing white minority rule in South Africa seemed, if you’ll forgive me, so very black and white.  Just do it, man….


Ol’ Robbo, and the few other conservatives who dared to out themselves on campus, suggested to our fellow scholars that, as awful as Apartheid was (and there was no moral argument there, at least by Western lights, to be sure), replacing the old system with something more genuinely representative was not, perhaps, quite so simple and equitable as all that.

Indeed, we attempted to point out a few uncomfortable  truths about the whole biznay.  For one thing, the African National Congress, the chief opposition movement at the time,  was little better than a Brute Squad, dealing with its enemies not by reason or persuasion but by putting tires full of gasoline around their necks and setting them alight.   For another, said ANC was governed by a group of committed tinpot Marxists who, given the chance to gain power, would sail right past any notion of rule of law and representative democracy and go straight on to establishing a glorious people’s paradise.  (And we all know how well those turn out.)  For a third, the Soviets were still very much at play on the international chessboard in those days, and just itching for a tinpot Marxists dictatorship to set itself up in South Africa:  In exchange for the usual money, material subsidies and technical and politickal expertise, Ivan would have loved to have got his hands on a naval base at the Cape.  For us, that would have been a Very Bad Thing.

So there was all that.  As to Mandela himself, already very much the face of the Movement, we hadn’t much to say except to point out that he had not been jailed all those years for engaging in Gandhi-like hunger strikes. He’d been jailed because of his activity in organizing the ANC’s terror wing in general, and in his yootful habit of blowing up people and things in particular.   We also noted that whether he himself was a Communist or not, he certainly was a sympathizer.  We further noted that his wife Winnie was demonstrably a stone-cold monster who needed to be kept as far away from the levers of power as possible.

In short, we argued that South Africa was a very complex and delicate matter, not readily amenable to knee-jerk solutions but needing careful, balanced consideration.  Even then, we suggested, there might not be any really good options or answers.   Leave things in status quo?  Morally reprehensible.  (Ah, the days of innocence viz-a-viz Nation Building!)  Deliberately crash their economy to force immediate change?  Radical elements most likely take over with all the usual slaughter and misery and, as I mention, Ivan probably ends up controlling the South Atlantic sea-lanes.

Almost needless to say, our arguments were not well received.  Indeed, I drew a cartoon for the conservative paper on campus trying to illustrate the conundrum, and got quite a few threats and insults as a result.  (In fact, it was the second scariest experience for me in my entire undergraduate career.  The worst was perhaps the night of the Mondale slaughter in ’84.  A very large and vehement Lefty – Alessandro by name, after watching the results come in, proclaimed he was going to hunt me down and break my nose.  Fortunately, according to reports, he was so drunk that he merely passed out instead.  As a matter of fact, the fellah was a mere bruiser.  I’m fairly sure that with my lithesome quickness, I could have taken him down if necessary.)

Ay, me.

Anyhoo, at the time, I thought my concerns perfectly justifiable.  Looking back over the years and taking off the 20/20 hindsight glasses, I still think they were reasonable.  And here is where I give Mandela credit:  Whatever his villainous past, he managed to pull off a miracle of sorts.  In the post-Apartheid era, he could have unleashed the more radical elements of the ANC to put their enemies to the sword but he didn’t.  (And lest you think this meant only the Afrikaners and Brits, you’re mistaken.  Tribal politicks played a role here, too.  The ANC is comprised largely of Xhosas.  Had the knives come out, they would have used them to wipe out the Zulus, whom they hate.  Rwanda, anyone?  Prince Buthelezi, leader of the Zulus, was always opposed to radical, precipitous Western meddling, including sanctions.)  He could have pronounced himself President for Life, nationalized the entire economy and caused South Africa to plunge head-first into the impoverished, kleptocratic cesspit that is most of Sub-Saharan Africa but he didn’t.  Instead, he made every effort at reconciliation and comity among all the various factions and, so far as I gather, preservation of the rule of law.

Why did he do it?  Genuine personal nobility or calculation that he couldn’t have got away with it?  I dunno.  Nonetheless, I think it fitting to praise him for his restraint.

Mind you,  I see Mandela’s magnanimity as a delaying action.  As I say, he stopped South Africa from stage-diving into the usual Sub-Saharan cesspit, but from what I read, it is still nonetheless sliding down the slope toward said pit.  The difference, I suppose, is that a gradual slide is somewhat easier to stop than a headlong plunge.   For this, if for nothing else, we ought to honor the man.


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December 2013