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BBC World Service

Mandela knew economics could be tool of liberation, or oppression

Matthew Davies Dec 6, 2013
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Nelson Mandela, the man who lead South Africa to end apartheid before becoming its first black president, died yesterday at 95. Mandela spent 27 years in prison before being elected president after his release in 1990. Admired for his personal sacrifice, and celebrated around the globe as an emancipator and uniting figure, Mandela leaves many legacies behind. Credited with bringing together a nation deeply divided by apartheid, Mandela was able to temper the anger of South Africa’s black majority while ameliorating the fears of the white minority who had been their oppressors. But besides a story of peace and reconciliation, Mandela’s death is also a reminder of how economics can be a tool of oppression as well as a tool of liberation.

The structure of an economy is also a human rights story. And Mandela’s economic legacy will be remembered as his fight against a system of social engineering that enforced the unconscionable gap between rich and poor. But the work didn’t end with Mandela, says the BBC’s Matthew Davies, who lived in South Africa at the end of apartheid. In fact, its dismantling is really an ongoing story.

“What Mr. Mandela really did was to create an atmosphere of stability in the post-apartheid economy,” Davies says. “Now, the apartheid economy itself, it was hit by sanctions in a big way. What he did was create political stability, which was then able to build the economy from there on in.”

Mandela was able to insure that proceeds from South Africa’s post-apartheid economic growth were distributed more equally among the country’s black majority only to a certain extent. While Davies says Mandela “planted the seeds” for a more inclusionary economy, issues of economic inequality along both racial and class lines continue to dog South Africa to this day.

“There has been a certain amount of inclusion in the economy that was certainly missing under the apartheid days, but there is still this massive wealth gap between the rich and the poor in South Africa,” he says. “I mean, the average white household actually makes 6 times more in income than a black household. So there are these huge gaps between the rich and the poor, and they remain to this day.”

In a time where the role of Twitter, Facebook, and other social media was (perhaps inaccurately) trumpeted as being the driving force behind the Arab Spring, and other social upheavals, it’s notable how a pre-internet grassroots movement, made of up largely college students, was able to pressure governments around the globe to impose economic sanctions on South Africa that were crucial in cracking the back of apartheid. Davies says that he observed the consequences of sanctions first hand while living in South Africa.

“I was living in South Africa towards the end of apartheid, and the sanctions really started to bite,” he says. “There were all sorts of companies who announced that they’d leave South Africa. Others left as well. The sanctions themselves did actually make a great deal of difference in bringing down the apartheid regime.

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