A South African Hero

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, Martin Luther King 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 February 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.

About wcoats

I specialize in advising central banks on monetary policy and the development of the capacity to formulate and implement monetary policy.  I joined the International Monetary Fund in 1975 from which I retired in 2003 as Assistant Director of the Monetary and Financial Systems Department. While at the IMF I led or participated in missions to the central banks of over twenty countries (including Afghanistan, Bosnia, Croatia, Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Kosovo, Kyrgystan, Moldova, Serbia, Turkey, West Bank and Gaza Strip, and Zimbabwe) and was seconded as a visiting economist to the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (1979-80), and to the World Bank's World Development Report team in 1989.  After retirement from the IMF I was a member of the Board of the Cayman Islands Monetary Authority from 2003-10 and of the editorial board of the Cayman Financial Review from 2010-2017.  Prior to joining the IMF I was Assistant Prof of Economics at UVa from 1970-75.  I am currently a fellow of Johns Hopkins Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, Institute for Applied Economics, Global Health, and the Study of Business Enterprise.  In March 2019 Central Banking Journal awarded me for my “Outstanding Contribution for Capacity Building.”  My most recent book is One Currency for Bosnia: Creating the Central Bank of Bosnia and Herzegovina. I have a BA in Economics from the UC Berkeley and a PhD in Economics from the University of Chicago. My dissertation committee was chaired by Milton Friedman and included Robert J. Gordon.
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