This is not, needless to say, the norm. Much more common are insurgents like Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Castro, Mugabe, Kim Il Sung, and (fill in the blank) who, while posturing as freedom fighters battling an evil dictatorship, swiftly become dictators in turn as soon as they seize power. The exceptions to that rule are some of the greatest figures of modern history–the likes of George Washington, Michael Collins, David Ben-Gurion, and, most recently, Nelson Mandela.
I can remember growing up in the 1980s when there was widespread suspicion among conservatives in the U.S.–including many in the Reagan administration–that if the African National Congress were to take over, South Africa would be transformed into another dysfunctional dictatorship like the rest of the continent. That this did not come to pass was due to many reasons including F.W. de Klerk’s wisdom in giving up power without a fight.
But the largest part of the explanation for why South Africa is light years ahead of most African nations–why, for all its struggles with high unemployment, crime, corruption, and other woes, it is freer and more prosperous than most of its neighbors–is the character of Nelson Mandela. Had he turned out to be another Mugabe, there is every likelihood that South Africa would now be on the same road to ruin as Zimbabwe. But that did not happen because Mandela turned out to be, quite simply, a great man–someone who could spend 27 years in jail and emerge with no evident bitterness to make a deal with his jailers that allowed them to give up power peacefully and to avoid persecution.
His example should dispel any illusions, so popular in the historical profession, that history is made by impersonal forces. Mandela’s example is a ringing endorsement of what is derisively known as the “great man school of history”–the notion that influential individuals make a huge difference in how events turn out. He certainly made a difference, and for the better. He will go down as one of the giants of the second half of the twentieth century along with Reagan, Thatcher, Deng Xiaoping, Lech Walesa, and Pope John Paul II.