Sunday, 8 December 2013
Nelson Mandela and the art and craft of the historian
The passing of President Nelson Mandela has made many people reflect about many things: the nature of leadership, of rhetoric, nationhood, race, and politics itself.
Historians have got a lot to add here. As Richard Toye of the University of Exeter has reflected, one thing we can say is how complex things seemed at the time, bringing to the question a degree of fine detail and a sense of contestation that might be lost if we celebrate a totem and an image rather than a man. Mr Mandela was opposed by many, in his own country and beyond. He was a politician, not a saint, and he used cunning, rhetoric and sometimes force to move towards his objectives. We have to look forwards, from the perspective of a deeply divided South Africa as it existed in the 1980s and 1990s, rather than just backwards from the more united and fairer society that Mandela forged.
What we historians might also highlight is the admixture of structure and agency which makes up changes in our history - and the way we professional historians try to deal with them.
Consider the situation when he walked to freedom from his prison cell in 1990. A sinister security infrastructure was quite happy to stir up the prospects of a civil war. The ANC was faced with enemies on every side, and had it lashed out in angry vindication the whole structure might have come tumbling down in an all-out confrontation that would have left the region devestated. Nelson Mandela's words and deeds - who can forget 'take your weapons, and throw them into the sea'? - helped to stop that happening. In President Obama's memorable phrase, he 'took history in his hands'.
Now things may not have been as bad as they seemed. The end of the Cold War and changing views within white South African society meant that the governing classes of the time had few other places to turn. But their erstwhile opponent made it easier for them - and for the ANC's other enemies. He provided them with a respectable face to bargain with, and a set of ladders to climb down.
Where will the balance between the individual's role in history, and the logic of the situation, be struck? What will future historians think of the agency and the structure? We don't know yet - but we know, at least, that we will have to know.