Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Mandela and de Klerk


I am writing this one day after the death of Nelson Mandela, and the whole world is in mourning. Every living U.S. president (except George H.W., whose health is not so good) is going to the funeral, and probably most of the other leaders of the world. Flags are flying at half mast, something I can’t recall seeing for any other non-American. Senators and Congresspersons who voted against the anti-apartheid bill in the ‘80s, when Ronald Reagan supported South Africa, are singing his praises, the fucking hypocrites. As for myself, I consider him one of my very few heroes … and I can count my heroes on one hand, and probably not even need the thumb. Who could have imagined that anyone could guide that benighted country through the end of minority rule and the beginning of free elections, what with all the hatred, the massacres, the atrocities in the prisons? And he did it not with vengeance, but with reconciliation. People were allowed to confess their crimes, and be forgiven. What a concept! I never would have thought it would work, but it seems to have gone down pretty well. Of course, South Africa is still a long, long way from peaceful and many of the people are a long way from prosperous, and the leadership since Mandela has been awful … but I truly believe he prevented a race war that might still be going on.

So, on to the movie. The chief pleasure here is watching two old pros, Michael Caine and Sidney Poitier, going head to head as the president of South Africa and the man who would soon replace him. The story begins with his sentencing to life in prison. He would spend the next twenty-seven years there, as president Botha and the other die-hard racists refused to submit to internal and international pressure. But he was eventually thrown out by more realistic men, chief of whom was F. W. De Klerk.

There is wonderful irony here. Yes, the first twenty years or so was incredibly brutal, dehumanizing, just horrible all around. But for the last two years Nelson Mandela was living in a very nice house. He had visitors. His jailer came to respect him, even love him. And the government came to listen to his demands. He held an entire country hostage! All this is nicely played out in this movie, which also blends in historical footage, some of it even bloodier than I remember from news reports of the time. I recommend this movie.