Mandela: His Political Past and Future

Though he officially retired from public life in 1999, Nelson Mandela continues to exert his influence in shaping international policy on topics such as Africa, Iraq, AIDS and the United Nations. For a closer look at his living legacy and whether he still has the clout to effect real political change, Ed Gordon is joined by Emira Woods, co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies, and Allister Sparks, a South African journalist whose coverage of Apartheid-era unrest was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. His latest book is called Beyond the Miracle: Inside the New South Africa.

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ED GORDON, host:

Though he officially retired from public life in 1999, Nelson Mandela clearly is still a force. Just how powerful a force is our question today. To talk about that, we're joined in our Washington, DC, studios by Emira Woods, co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies. And from his home in Johannesburg is journalist Allister Sparks, whose coverage of the anti-apartheid era and the unrest there was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. His latest book is called "Beyond the Miracle: Inside the New South Africa."

I thank you both for joining us. Allister Sparks, let me talk to you first. Before we get into this trip that the former president has taken here in the United States, I want to talk about the shadow that this man continues to cast and just in your eyes, how powerful he remains.

Mr. ALLISTER SPARKS (Journalist): Yes. I would say that he's not involved directly in political issues now. He tries to stand clear of that, and not to give the impression of undercutting or overshadowing his successor, President Thabo Mbeki. Nonetheless, he is an immense moral icon, and if one is talking about a shadow or a spirit that he exudes and which infuses the whole country, that is it. As he grows older--he's 87 now--he has, of course, withdrawn more and more from public life, but he still does pronounce on key issues, particularly matters of morality, matters like the AIDS pandemic, education, the state of children and so on. He's an enormous figure in our society, but it's a mistake to regard him as a meddlesome old politician.

GORDON: Emira Woods, what's interesting about Nelson Mandela is for years, obviously, he has been the voice of consciousness. We still see that today with the stances he takes so atypical of most current-day politicians.

Ms. EMIRA WOODS (Institute for Policy Studies): Without a doubt, there couldn't be anyone better to carry the message that the situation in Iraq has got to change. He comes out clearly and says democracy cannot be imposed. The US occupation of Iraq has got to change. That moral authority that he brings to questions of war and peace he brings also to the issues related to Africa and Africa's development. So powerful for him to come at this time to say, `This is Africa's moment, Africa's time has come,' and to lay out what is needed to help bring the continent to its rightful place in the global community. Couldn't be a better person to send that message.

GORDON: Allister Sparks, how much power do you believe is behind that moral voice of authority? How much does his word still carry to move to action?

Mr. SPARKS: Well, it depends on who one is talking about. I think he certainly has moral influence, but I don't think that he could really stop this government or any other government from taking a course it had decided on. But I do think he has tremendous moral influence, and he can certainly voice his criticisms, as he does both locally and internationally. But I really think the essence of the man is his belief, which he expresses now in his statement that democracy has to be homegrown--a belief which I think is tremendously important in the world as well as in South Africa itself, that communities and the world as a whole have to be made safe for diversity, and that cannot be achieved by trying to impose conformity, by trying to create a world in one's own image, but that one must become more tolerant of the other, of differences in faith, differences in political traditions, the differences in culture, language, everything. That is the hallmark of the man. That is what has made him what he is in South Africa, and it's what has made South Africa what it is today.

GORDON: Emira Woods, when you look at the situation today, as Mr. Sparks has already suggested, there is only so much political clout this man will be able to wield or will even choose to wield, not to undermine others, yet one has to believe, in subjects like AIDS and subjects like the morality of war, when he speaks, he is listened to. How much do you believe that this current administration, the Bush administration, will have to, once this visit is concluded, deal with some of what he has put forth?

Ms. WOODS: You know, we recognize that this administration looks for photo ops. So yet again, they will look for a photo op with Nelson Mandela. But what we have to realize is that Mandela is pushing this administration and all throughout the world to be responsive to the priorities set by Africans. So he is saying first and foremost, recognize that this is Africa's moment. Step up to the plate.

One key element in stepping up to the plate--and this is a ripe moment for it--is support for debt cancellation in Africa. The best way for the Bush administration to show that it is being responsive to Mandela's call, that it is going to not just take the photos and go on to the next photo opportunity, the best way is for the Bush administration to take steps to join with other allies in debt cancellation immediately for Africa. This is 100 percent debt cancellation on this debt that much of it was gained by illegitimate governments and often with the complicity of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund.

This debt that is strangling Africa must be canceled, and I think Mandela comes at a precise moment before the group of wealthy nations meet in July to remind the Bush administration that it is time for action. We cannot continue to push aside Africa's priorities, whether it is on debt, or it's on HIV-AIDS or it's on changed trade rules where Africa can actually benefit from trade and not be hampered by products being dumped on African markets under the support of subsidies from this US government. So now is the time for the Bush administration to actually take these words to heart. Now is the time to support Africa and to support Africa's priorities.

GORDON: Allister Sparks, we've seen this man take up the fight to eradicate AIDS, much of it based on the fact that he was touched by it with his son's death, untimely death. I'm curious. If you look at this picture and the landscape, not only of Africa, but the world, when this voice is silenced, whether it be by death or be by his attempt to find a private life in truth, how big of a loss is that?

Mr. SPARKS: Well, obviously, he'll be an enormous loss to his country and to the world when he does pass on. Nonetheless, I do believe that figures like this leave a legacy that lasts indefinitely. You know, India, I think, is still shaped and molded in its innate spirit by the founding spirit of Mahatma Gandhi. And I think much the same would apply to South Africa. I still hear references to George Washington and Thomas Jefferson and your Founding Fathers. You know, they're all dead, but they're not gone, as it were. And I think Nelson Mandela is very much the founding father of the new South Africa, and I believe he will live as long as this country does in that sense. He will be quoted indefinitely.

GORDON: Yes.

Mr. SPARKS: His statements will be remembered.

GORDON: Right.

Mr. SPARKS: And his image of what he embedded in this society will live on well beyond him.

GORDON: Right. All right. In fact, it will.

Emira Woods and Allister Sparks, thank you so much for giving us an update and looking at the legacy of Nelson Mandela.

Coming up, racial controversy for Mexico's president, and a new X-ray machine at airports. This is NPR News.

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