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White South African Political Refugee J.M. Coetzee on Nelson Mandela
Nelson Mandela has died after a long life – long yet lamentably truncated in that he spent 27 of the best years of his manhood incarcerated at the pleasure of the state.
Incarcerated, he was hardly powerless. During the final years of that long sentence he in effect exercised a power of veto over the foreign policy of his country, exerting more and more of a strangehold over his jailers.
With F.W. de Klerk, a man of much smaller moral stature, yet also, in his way, a contributor to the liberation of South Africa, Mandela held a turbulent country together during the dangerous years 1990-94, exercising his great personal charm to persuade whites that they had a place in the new democratic republic while step by step emasculating the separatist white right wing.
By the time he became president in his own right, he was already an old man. His failure to throw himself more energetically into the urgent business of the day – the creation of a just economic order – was understandable if unfortunate. Like the rest of the leadership of the ANC, he was blindsided by the collapse of socialism world-wide; the party had no philosophical resistance to put up against a new, predatory economic rationalism.
Mandela's personal and political authority had its basis in his principled defence of armed resistance to apartheid and in the harsh punishment he suffered for that resistance. It was given further backbone by his aristocratic mien, which was not without a gracious common touch, and his old-fashioned education, which held before him Victorian ideals of personal integrity and devotion to public service.
He managed relations with a wife, whose behaviour became increasingly scandalous, with exemplary forbearance.
He was, and by the time of his death was universally held to be, a great man; he may well be the last of the great men, as the concept of greatness retires into the historical shadows.
J.M. Coetzee is an internationally renowned novelist praised for his unsparing recording of the impact of apartheid on South Africa. He won the Nobel prize for literature in 2003 and is now an Australian citizen.
Of course, there is an interesting story behind the concluding biographical phrase: "... is now an Australian citizen."
Coetzee's 1999 novel Disgrace is about a white college professor in post-apartheid South Africa whose lesbian daughter is gang-raped by blacks. She ultimately agrees to become the polygamous wife of her rapists' clan leader to escape further violence at their hands. (I reviewed the 2009 movie starring John Malkovich as the Coetzee-like main character terrorized by the new ruling race.)
Unsurprisingly, Coetzee's book was not welcomed warmly by the ruling party, which held hearings to probe into the novel's "racism." After Coetzee's profile was raised even higher by winning the 2003 Nobel, he left for Australia where he has maintained a high level of discretion about why he is in exile.
By the way, I read all the time about African refugees being expensively brought to America (here's a new NYT Magazine article about a Somali refugee's misadventures trying to become a cop in America) rather than America paying to resettle them at much lower cost in neighboring countries where the climate is more congenial.
But certain African refugees elicit extraordinarily little concern or interest in this country. For example, I've never heard anyone ask why the U.S. failed to become the new home for Coetzee, a Nobel laureate wary of political persecution. You might think that Nobel prize winners looking for a safe country would be near the top of the list. Yet, not only did America fail to attract Coetzee, we didn't try, and we didn't even notice we didn't try.