The Great Man Theory of History: Nelson Mandela Edition

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Photo by Paul Weinberg
One Man Can't Do it All

The collective media genuflection began the moment Nelson Mandela died. Everyone, it seemed, was in agreement: this was a great man, a giant of history, etc. etc. This is partly true, and partly media narrative. For example, South Africa is not, despite Mandela's efforts, in great shape:

The scene illuminated an essential truth of post-apartheid South Africa: People are deeply, deeply disillusioned with the leaders who've followed Mandela, both official African National Congress politicians and emotional leaders like Mandela's offspring. Mandela's relatives seem to have bucked his example entirely; some have banked millions in mining, an industry against which the apartheid-era ANC railed against as the heart of South Africa's satanic injustice, while others have cashed in with a reality TV show.

Moreover:

Mandela personally has never particularly flaunted his wealth, but his house is in Johannesburg's version of Westchester--a leafy estate of soaring mansions and stately tree-shaded avenues--and his foundation is known for fiercely protecting the copyright on his iconic smiling visage, so that the wealth it produces redounds only to the family.

There are chinks in his armor and legacy.

Moreover, his legacy is susceptible to the "great man" theory of history. Americans are particularly susceptible to this sort of thinking with their veneration of the Founding Fathers and "no George Washington = no victory over the British." Other examples might be "no Gorbachev = no fall of the Soviet Union" and "no Martin Luther King = no civil rights victory."

At all events, the reasons why countries become democratic and emerge from authoritarian regimes are much more complex than what any one man can accomplish. Large structural forces like socio-economic development play a role, as do the extent to which the opposition forces (the democratizers) are unified and if they have access to, or are a part of, the broader mass public. In that same vein, political scientists remind us that there needs to be the removal of any external forces that were preventing democratization (e.g., the (US) conservative movements' support for apartheid), and well as pressure from outside forces (e.g., NGOs and foreign governments) to democratize. Years from now, all of this will be untangled by serious journalists and academics and the answer won't simply be: "Nelson Mandela = the end of apartheid."

There is no question that Mandela's life and legacy should be celebrated; he was pivotal and the rallying point for democratization in South Africa. He was first among equals in the black liberation movement. But history will tell us a finer-grained story than the media paean right now lets on.


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