Greg Bartley/Camera Press, via Redux

Many years ago, while I was living in Beacon Hill Friends House, a Quaker community in Boston, a young member tentatively proposed that we host a Model Mugging self-defense course for women. Her hesitation could well have come from religious principles; traditionally, Quakers eschew physical violence even to save their own lives. But this woman was worried about something else altogether: “I don’t like people telling women that they should be afraid.” On that principle, she wondered whether she needed to snub this well-regarded course, as obviously it recruits and runs on fear. No matter that its goal is the management of fear and the lessening of actual danger. Certainly the instructors can’t help but authorize the feeling behind the basic questions “How can I avoid being robbed or raped, and how would I deal with such a crime in progress?” And lessons about the psychological profile of a typical rapist or the disparity between male and female upper body strength can’t have the effect of a relaxation tape.

The trouble of course is that you can’t know or plan or achieve much of anything worthwhile without fear, and decrying it seems to me—I won’t bother to be polite here—a symptom of having been raised by the TV. Wonder Woman might find herself shackled (with well-polished bands, and without any offense to her hairdo), but nobody is going to rape her. You can’t do that to Wonder Woman. Those of us who had TV-viewing restrictions and learned about the world from our parents always thought such images deserved nothing but satire. But for those who have had nothing of importance between them and popular culture, this stuff is real, or at least a pledge of what they can reasonably expect from life. Michael Moore, full of the fantasy of cheap, easy truth and justice such as comic books and cartoons offered to our generation, reacts with horror to American history, as if it were uniquely deplorable and readily could have happened some other way. We were always afraid, he complains, in an (appropriately, animated) segment of Bowling for Columbine called “A Brief History of the USA.” Meaning—there was never anything to be afraid of? Or just that we were wrong to notice it?

I’ve written this preface to my thoughts on South Africa because I noticed a lot there that made me afraid, and not, I think, irrationally afraid. I lived in the country (minus a couple of sojourns back in the States) from a few months before the 1994 multiracial elections, which placed Mandela in the presidency, until May of 2005, when his successor Thabo Mbeki’s rule was in full debacle (a friend suggested the nickname Mbacle). By the time I left, there was widespread AIDS-denial and the blocking of antiretroviral use through every institution the central government could reach, as well as shocking government connivance with Robert Mugabe’s reign of terror in Zimbabwe.

In South Africa, the chief—and constant—intellectual instrument of evil seemed to be an American type of pop fantasy—but driven to a logical conclusion at which the facts never influenced policy. People who clawed to discuss the facts in public found themselves ignored or ejected, like mean drunks in a bar, because the purpose of the country was supposed to be freedom from fear and hatred, skepticism and dislike—an uninterrupted celebration. If efforts to repress natural negativism ended up making conditions worse, so that negativism couldn’t help but run wild (when, for example, people were dying all around because it had been unbearable to contemplate crime steadily enough to do anything about it)—then too bad.

This show was meant to go in only one direction, looked toward only one kind of sanctioned ending. The “Madiba magic” would play on every flat-screen in every Constantia villa, and on every stolen portable running on hijacked electricity in every shack in Gugulethu.

Mandela was a media president, a master of manipulation. I was at one of his 1994 campaign appearances when my companion, one of his supporters, returned from a Porta-Potty break to report nervously that, behind a three-sided screen at the edge of the platform, attendants had carried the candidate up: He was too weak to manage even six or seven stairs on his own. I told several people in turn, but they shrugged; the last thing they were in the mood for was brow-furrowing over the state of the presidential candidate’s health and energy.

They not only wanted the hero of the constitutional settlement rewarded and the symbol of reconciliation enthroned, definitely an understandable urge, but the story also had to be inspirational in every detail. It couldn’t include a figurehead presidency, with policy formulation, administrative oversight, and even many public appearances and diplomatic functions carried out by younger, more energetic, and—yes—much more insightful and—I can’t avoid this—more honest players. Instead, the fantasy of perfection and invulnerability had to be treated as real. No one must fear what Mandela’s human shortcomings might do, and therefore he must not be allowed to have any.

He did in fact have plenty, and covering up for them set government accountability back, perhaps permanently. I heard some of the first grumblings from the business community. (Dating an entrepreneur who was emerging from a medical career, I met a former manufacturer, a number of technology developers, a logistics tycoon, and wealthy émigrés on return visits.) Giving a very bad sign of their attitude, Mandela and his lieutenants kept prospective investors from overseas sitting in conference rooms for hours, waiting for scheduled meetings. These groups did not find “African time” charming, but of course they were not going to complain in public, pushing back uselessly against world sentiment, bringing charges of racism on themselves, and alerting their competitors to the potential for waste and failure.

The press gave Mandela’s truculent preference for rest, privacy, and recreational pursuits—particularly with celebrities—a remarkable pass, both while he was in office and in semi-retirement, when he—or someone—needed to advise and restrain Mbeki. I happened to be near a luxury shoe store on the Main Road in Rondesbosch, below the University of Cape Town, when Mandela stopped his motorcade there to refresh his footwear collection—by all (private) accounts, a very frequent habit of his—on his way to a public event in a stadium down the way. The subsequent news article didn’t say of the politician, “He blocked traffic and kept a crowd waiting in the hot sun while he did some impromptu shopping,” but stressed the proprietor’s and onlookers’ dizzying excitement that he had been here.

Where corruption was concerned, “Madiba magic” took on the character of a sinister vanishing act. From the time Mandela came out of a twenty-seven-year jail term into a mansion that (as it appeared) he hadn’t owned until that moment, his backhanders and frauds were the most conspicuous on the continent, if for no other reason than that he was its most conspicuous actor. To be blind to these goings-on took such a gigantic, contrived effort that the blindness effortlessly covered such hole-and-corner (though reliably reported) matters as policemen’s regular sale of the paperwork on rape cases to the accused rapists—much as a concert pianist’s skill will cover humming “Pop Goes the Weasel,” no problem.

While I was stringing for the magazine noseweek, I worked on two well-documented (in sooth, founded on a leaked contract) articles concerning what we gamely titled the Great Mandela Art Scam. Some time before, a flashy campaign had begun to peddle “Mandela art,” some at high prices to foreign celebrities like Oprah (whose relationship with Mandela was rumored not to have been enhanced by her later assessment of her purchases), in order to enrich Mandela personally under the guise of nonprofit fundraising. Our questions thudded and plashed monotonously into a sewer, each one answered with “Very probably not.” Did Mandela create all these images himself? Did he even sign all the prints by hand? Could he have failed to know that his private trust, the Nelson Mandela Fund, sounded a lot like an independent and reputable charity, the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund, and that his lackey was identifying, in the national and international press, the beneficiary of the art sales as the latter? (I interviewed the lackey myself and was told that Mandela “could spend all the money on sweets” if he liked; and I couldn’t get an explanation for why, if the press had misquoted my informant concerning the beneficiary entity, he had never sought a correction.)

It was all duly reported in noseweek, whose circulation demographic, though small, is the sweetest in the country; every player and “opinion-maker” is up on the rag. All the powers that were therefore knew what Mandela was up to, but the main result was that he broke with his personal lawyer and imputed all impropriety to him.

Months later, I found at the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront launching site for Robben Island tours a glossy pamphlet offering the artwork for sale. In small print there was a notice: The proceeds went to the Nelson Mandela Fund, from which Mandela contributed to charities. Maybe I should invite donations to my personal bank account on the basis of the occasional checks I write to the United Way or Quaker Zimbabwe Food Relief.

But perhaps I misspeak myself about the “main result.” Another result, long-lasting and and quite general, was a strengthening of this excuse not to move against key bad actors: “Well, if Mandela does it, it can’t be that bad.”

But under Mandela and his hand-picked successor, it wasn’t just standards for the conduct of prominent politicians but the whole of governance under their purview—law-making as well as enforcement, diplomacy, economic planning, infrastructure maintenance, education, and health, safety, and environmental oversight—that went begging.

Foreign business relations with South Africa, crucial in any efforts to check the catastrophically growing unemployment rate, became a game of accelerated musical chairs. Who would be the last to obey the (rather tinkly) music of publicity (which clearly wasn’t going to stop, no matter what), and be left standing with an old or a new fixed investment (as opposed to bare money, which was bribed into the local financial markets with whopping interest rates and could be whipped out at any sign of trouble)?

It was naturally the more idealistic firms that got suckered the worst. One built a state-of-the-art plant in a poor neighborhood, for the employment of its residents. As soon as the place acquired utility hook-ups, but before it was operational and secured, squatters packed it with their shanties. Legal efforts to straighten this out took years—during which the utility bills went to the company’s account (shutting off the electricity and water was apparently forbidden)—and ended in a ruling for eviction that depended on each squatter voluntarily identifying himself and his living space and standing still to be served notice some time later. (Through the South African news funland presented overseas, I can’t find any record of how the situation turned out—whether a single squatter ever had to leave, whether the company kept fighting, simply departed, or, amazingly, won. Events were reported with alarm and indignation in the Cape Town press in the late Nineties, but only because the Western-oriented, classically liberal Democratic Party, influential and at periods dominant in this region, issued forlorn and isolated squawks against the huckster fantasists; but seldom does a sound exit the continent.)

It isn’t clear whether Mandela and the rest of the African National Congress (ANC) didn’t understand how necessary the rule of law was, or didn’t care, or didn’t want to bother trying to explain, or were nervously self-satisfied in that they weren’t as shameless as Winnie, Mandela’s estranged and then divorced wife, whose violent felonies were abundantly witnessed but—of course—untouchable. (Her policy was “Put me in charge, and you can take what you want, and I mean anything: houses, land, revenge, lives in the hundred thousands.” She enjoyed—and still enjoys—a roaring, resistless popularity among the majority that Mandela could never have hoped for.) But the facts are, to my mind anyway, indisputable. Much that ought to have been done was left undone, and much that ought not to have been done was done, and there was pretty close to no health in the whole damn country.

The plunder of public-education jobs for the benefit of political hacks left me most personally aghast, because I taught at the University of Cape Town and later, as a volunteer, in a black township: I knew the need, and the potential, and how much of the future was wantonly thrown away. Instead of sharing white teaching and administrative expertise across an integrated educational system, the new government replaced the experts with ANC supporters who were, for the most part, ignorant almost beyond belief, absentee, or abusive—and sometimes a mesmerizing combination of all three. For example, a group of female teachers once abandoned their classes to gang up on a teenage girl and molest her brutally and pitifully and persistently, in order to “teach” her not to be interested in sex.

The white staff were, as a rule, superb, and I never met one whose attitude would likely have amounted to a real political problem in a classroom or principal’s office; on the contrary, some were making hay in integrated, black, or “Colored” (mixed-race) schools already. But in a comprehensive program, millions of dollars in early-retirement payouts (the more years of experience, the higher the payout!) went toward easing them out of the civil service posts that they had a right to keep according to the constitutional settlement that ended apartheid. Many of those who tried to hang on were assigned a “redeployment” across the country, away from their families, typically to situations the Peace Corps would reject as unsafe for let’s-have-an-adventure, safari-jacketed young volunteers. A number of wealthy suburban public schools could fight back and adjust and maintain their high quality, preventing a wholesale shift to private education for everyone with choice. But the poorer schools were either gutted of skills and leadership, or, if already gutted by apartheid’s deprivations and upheavals, simply left without any hope of anything better.

When I tell Americans about this, they shrink from believing me. This is South Africa we’re talking about! Surely this country, of all countries, wouldn’t do that to itself, and under Nelson Mandela’s presidency, no less. It’s true, I insist—but sometimes I can’t believe I’m remembering it right, and I go home afterwards and Google up the sparse history of “South Africa,” “education,” and “redeployment.” Sometimes I say to people, “There’s a lot you’re not supposed to know.”

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 32 Number 6, on page 10
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