June 29, 2015
In her groundbreaking book Eichmann In Jerusalem, Hannah Arendt, the Jewish German intellectual who fled the Nazis, coined the expression “the banality of evil”. She reported on the Eichmann trial and, after closely studying the butcher of Auschwitz, she made the central point that, rather than being fanatics or psychopaths, many profoundly evil people are deeply normal.
This notion troubles us, because evil is always much easier to rationalise if we are comforted by the fact that evil people are not like you and me. But if they are like us, it opens the distinct possibility that we could all do something horrible, given the right circumstances.
When you walk through the gates of the Apartheid Museum here in Johannesburg, it reminds you not only how vile the South African state once was, but also that its vileness was upheld by millions of little decisions taken everyday by millions of ordinary people – people just like us.
The mass forced movement of blacks to the townships to remain out of sight, the horrible conditions of the miners who made South Africa rich, the constant violence meted out by the police: these were all deeply evil polices directed from the top.
However, the museum reminds us of the banal minutiae of apartheid – all those pass laws, the constant racial profiling of everything from going to the loo, going for a swim, waiting for a train, even just chatting to black people.
The day to-day working of apartheid depended on complicity: the complicity of millions.
How easy would it have been for Nelson Mandela, 21 years ago, to have seen this mass complicity as mass responsibility and acted to punish all whites accordingly? But, amazingly, he didn’t. He responded to mass complicity with a message of mass forgiveness.
He and his ANC comrades managed somehow to steer this amazing country away from the abyss and onto a different path, if not quite a rainbow nation, at least a nation which is dealing with its past by looking forwards not backwards.
Mandela had leadership. He was a transformative statesman. The extent of this only becomes apparent when you talk to all sides here.
Over dinner last night, three Afrikaners explained to me the symbolism of Mandela wearing the Springbok shirt in 1995 at the Rugby World Cup final. For a black man, the Springboks represented the team of the white supremacists; and yet, in one gesture, Mandela said, I am with you. I forgive you, let’s move forward together.
A young Zulu woman told me she would have happily looted white houses and killed white people but for Mandela. He “shamed us into good behaviour”, she told me. She said she had never understood the power of forgiveness, the strength of the moral high ground until she, as an angry teenager, was inspired by Mandela’s speeches. Such stories are everywhere. Mandela simply transcended the normal.
Unfortunately, leaders like him don’t come along every year. And only when they are gone do you realise how special they were. Real leaders don’t just run a country properly; they inspire people with a vision that goes far beyond the mundane formulas of economics.
Right now South Africa has plenty of economic problems, no doubt. There are up to five million unemployed here, the gap between the rich and poor is enormous, many black people still live below the poverty line. But there was no civil war, the country didn’t descend into violence, the economy continued to grow, and the black middle class – the most essential ballast for continued democracy – is growing. All this is thanks to leadership.
South Africa’s economic challenges are huge. Everywhere, the infrastructure is creaking. For example, driving to Soweto the traffic is awful, not only because of the number of cars, but because the traffic lights periodically stop because there isn’t enough electricity. This happens all the time and they even have their own word for these temporary power cuts. They aren’t known as “black-outs” but something far more innocuous called “load shedding”. Load shedding describes the national grid simply shedding power in certain places to make it available elsewhere.
However, as daunting as the economic challenges are, the political ones are greater. It’s clear that the ANC’s leadership has shifted from the long-term vision and intellectualism of Mandela and his generation, to “state populism” under President Jacob Zuma. He is widely perceived to be in the business of what he and his friends can get out of the country for the next five years rather than the Mandela approach which was much more expansive and long-term.
Again it comes down to leadership, vision and the ability to transcend your own parochial concerns and see the big picture.
Thinking about Mandela’s leadership and his ability to rise above pettiness and lead a damaged, violent and traumatised nation, I wonder, when I look at Europe this weekend: where are the European leaders?
Looking at the slagging, the sniping, the acrimony and the divisiveness of the Greek negotiations, ask yourself, where is the vision? What is the big picture? What is the end game? Is the EU a grand project which is supposed to steer the various nations of Europe into the 21st century, or is it a bickering babble of national fiefdoms led by people who are only interested in local re-election? Is it now simply a technocratic playground of rules and numerical targets, rather than a family of nations marching together? Is it merely a creditors’ paradise, where the strong creditor nations dole out punishment to the weak?
Years ago, that other great statesman Mahatma Gandhi noted that “the weak can never forgive: only the strong have the power to forgive”.
Mandela, once he was strong and was elected into a position of unassailable power, had the choice to forgive the whites or not. He used his power to forgive.
In Europe now, some of the most powerful countries on earth have the capacity to forgive Greece for its crime of economic mismanagement. But they are choosing to humiliate the Greeks instead.
A massive debt-to-GDP ratio may be a significant balance sheet misdemeanour, but it is hardly apartheid. Surely forgiveness, empathy and understanding with the Greek people represent a better tack than sneering, bullying and humiliation? If Africans could forgive whites for decades of hurt and terror, can’t the EU see beyond accountancy rules?
But it all comes down to leadership. Ask yourself: where’s the European Mandela?