Illustration of Nelson Mandela by Luis Grañena
© Luis Grañena

A black South African friend of mine was driving near Pretoria when his car broke down. He got out and began waving at passing cars, asking for help. A bearded white man drove up in a pickup truck – in my friend’s eyes, the archetypal Afrikaner, or “Boer”. The man glanced at my friend, and drove on. “Oh, no,” my friend thought. “I’m in Boer territory. Nobody’s going to dare give a black man a lift.” He stood there cursing his fate – when suddenly the Afrikaner in the truck appeared again and beckoned him to jump in. As they drove off, the Afrikaner said: “I was raised with some bad ideas. Now I’m trying to change myself.” They stayed in touch afterwards.

My parents were born in South Africa. I have visited the country all my life, during and after apartheid, and I’ve seen the double miracle that Nelson Mandela wrought. He didn’t just bring a political settlement between different colours. He also brought a settlement in ordinary South African everyday life. Mandela did something perhaps no other contemporary public figure anywhere has managed: he changed the way people in his country interact.

He achieved this on the most unpromising ground. In a terrible way, apartheid succeeded. It started from the assumption that people of different “races” were different, and it created races that really were different. Black and white South Africans grew up in different neighbourhoods, spoke different languages, went to different schools, earned different incomes and died at different ages. These divides were designed to create white contempt. I remember aged about 10, queueing at a Johannesburg ice-cream van, watching the following scene: a customer, another bearded white guy, is accusing the black vendor of being slow. “You’re so stupid!” the white man shouts. “You should not have this job! Quickly, give me ice cream!” The black man hands it over wordlessly; he isn’t allowed to talk back.

No wonder many South African whites still live with an ancient anxiety: that one night the blacks will come and slaughter them in their beds. It’s an anxiety embodied most recently by the white-baiting politician Julius Malema (expelled from the African National Congress last year).

Mandela allayed this white anxiety. He didn’t do it through words. Though he gave several great speeches before entering jail, his speeches from 1990 onwards were mostly boring. In a country with 11 official languages, words have limited effect anyway. Rather, the man who saw his first television camera aged 71 was a master of visual language. The fussy grey suit in which he walked out of jail, his adopted English first name and his flawless manners told whites: I am a British gentleman.

Somehow, he overcame his bitterness over his imprisonment. He achieved this by being attuned to his own “feelings of rage and impotence”, says the South African businessman Reuel Khoza. By understanding himself, Mandela mastered himself. Then, as John Carlin wrote in Playing the Enemy, he showed his supposed enemies “ordinary respect” – and it won them over. Most fathers of a nation, like George Washington or Giuseppe Garibaldi, made their nation on a battlefield. Mandela did it with smiles.

And so he became his own message of racial reconciliation. He embodied reconciliation, just as Churchill embodied British wartime resolve. Mandela gave whites absolution. True, reconciliation wasn’t merely his personal message. As one irritated ANC minister told me, it was official ANC policy. Yet Stephen Ellis, historian of Africa at the Free University Amsterdam, says Mandela’s individual role was probably essential in convincing whites: “His panache, skill, character, charisma was to sell that vision to all kinds of people. I don’t think anyone else could have done it.” Without Mandela, angrier voices could have prevailed.

Since 1990, most whites and blacks have tried hard with each other. It isn’t easy. Soon after apartheid ended, my late grandmother got a visit from a black doctor friend. He’d brought his grandchildren along, and he told them, “I wanted you to meet this lady, so that you’ll know that even in the bad old days there were some whites who treated blacks as equals.” It sounded like just another South African feel-good story, but my grandmother told me later: “I was embarrassed, because what he said wasn’t true. Although I wanted to treat blacks as equals, I couldn’t. As a white you couldn’t help looking down on them.”

Many old divides still exist. Indeed, precisely by creating reconciliation in daily life, Mandela unintentionally helped preserve an apparently stable situation in which white households have six times the average income of black ones. William Gumede, South African author and academic, says of excluded blacks: “Their anger has so far not been necessarily racial. The anger is about lack of delivery from the government. You do get individualistic anger, but there is no organised collective anger against whites as a group.”

The lack of black anger always baffled me. The best explanation is Mandela.

Twitter @KuperSimon

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