Mandela and Hope

Some hopeless causes aren't so hopeless.

The late Nelson Mandela gave us proof that the impossible can happen.

Back in the 1970s, it was a given that peaceful, democratic change in South Africa was impossible, a hopeless cause. The white minority would never abandon apartheid unless they were overthrown by violent revolution. For many Americans that could only mean a communist takeover. The supposed communist threat was the reason President Reagan and many others gave to justify supporting apartheid over its opponents.

As it turns out we were wrong. Despite all the odds, Mandela'and on the government side, former South African leader F.W. deClerk'made the transition from apartheid to one-man, one-vote. The impossible dream turned out to be possible.

South Africa's not unique. Throughout the Cold War, America built its anti-Soviet policy on the conviction no Soviet state would ever reform. The only possible way to defeat the USSR and its satellites was armed force. Then Reagan chose to negotiate with Gorbachev, despite multiple Republicans condemning him as a sell-out and an appeaser. In the end, the Soviet empire fell apart with startling ease.

In Latin America, military dictatorships used to be so common they were a cliche. My hometown paper once ran an editorial asserting that Latinos must have some innate flaw that made them incapable of democracy. Today, multiple former military regimes have become democratic states.

Protestant and Catholic militants and terrorists in Northern Ireland killed several thousand people in the 20th century's "Troubles." In the 21st century, despite mistrust and breakouts of violence, the peace process is awkwardly but steadily going forward.

Or heck, look at the USA. In 1963, Alabama politician George Wallace proclaimed segregation now, segregation forever. Violence rained down on the civil-rights movements, but nonviolent change won out.

The 21s century is full of oppressive regimes and terrorist movements, and it often seems the only solution is war. But sometimes it isn't. Sometimes negotiation and determined peaceful protest can tip the balance from oppression to freedom and make justice roll down like the waters.

Some people prefer to insist peaceful change is an illusion. They point out that South Africa may have overthrown apartheid, but it's still mired in problems. The Soviet Union is still authoritarian and repressive. Northern Ireland still suffers from sectarian violence. South America's democracies have plenty of problems.

All of which is true, but "Nelson Mandela didn't create utopia" isn't really a fair standard. No movement, no leader, no visionary can create a utopia. Mandela took on a gigantic challenge, ending an oppressive, racist political system, and he succeeded. Asking him to create a perfect post-apartheid society as well sets the bar unreasonably high.

If utopia is the standard, then America's Founding Fathers failed miserably. The century after they overthrew British rule saw millions of Americans enslaved, genocide against native tribes and a Civil War that cost more than 600,000 lives'the most brutal, bloody war in our history. By the logic of some of Mandela's critics, the United States should have stayed a colony.

I know perfectly well many of the troubles in the world today can't be resolved peacefully'but some can. Unfortunately, I've no idea which ones. Some revolutionaries and tyrannies will bend; others will stand until they break. My point isn't that we can always avoid war, only that a peaceful approach is possible more often than we think.

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Updated Jul 11, 2018 1:00 AM UTC | More details


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