"The history of what man has accomplished in this world is at bottom the history of the great men who have worked here." -- Thomas Carlyle, 1840
When I first visited South Africa a generation ago, I left xTC believing that not in my lifetime or that of my children would there be a transition to a one-man-one-vote democracy -- meaning black rule.
South Africa was then the most racially oppressive society I had ever seen -- yes, worse than my native South in which black people had been the slaves, the sharecroppers, the "uppity" protesters who became lynch victims.
But I had seen nothing there to equal the South African practice of "banning" critics of apartheid, making it a crime for anyone to publish their remarks; or to "banish" the persistently outspoken to a South African version of Siberia. South African critics were often swept off the streets, never to be heard from again.
I left South Africa certain that Nelson Mandela, the beloved leader of the African National Congress, would never leave the wretched Robben Island prison to scream to the world of the myriad injustices heaped upon him and others.
South Africa was so enslaved to a crazy system of racial classifications, with the white man supreme over the black majority, Coloreds and Asians, that it was inconceivable that any white elected president would ever countenance the idea of a multiracial society in which people shared power according to a universal, democratic vote.
Then along came this white leader, F.W. de Klerk, who not only let Mr. Mandela out of prison after 27 years, but gave him the
freedom to operate politically and socially. Mr. De Klerk began tearing down the pillars of apartheid, which many white supremacists everywhere saw as a grotesque act of betrayal.
He was helped by an incredible surprise: Mr. Mandela was not steeped in anger or prison-fed mindless rage. He didn't frighten white people anywhere. He was, in fact, the master consensus-builder, the wise old man of royal bearing.
Sure, the two men often fought -- especially when blacks suspected that one of President De Klerk's military units was arming one black group to attack another so as to keep alive the claim that "black tribalism" was too fierce a force for elections to be held.
Yet, they needed each other in desperate ways. A measure of mutual respect and trust was surely essential for each to avoid assassination by groups trying to maintain white supremacy, or blacks caught up in paranoia, or outrage over some momentary atrocity.
In the fact of political obstacles, car bombs, mass murders and other problems, Messrs. Mandela and De Klerk have conducted monumental, historical elections in which the black man who spent 27 years in prison becomes president, the white man who dared to let him out becomes vice president.
Thousands of historians will write twice as many books and still not record the essence of this human drama. Probably because it is true that there is no history -- only biography.
Carl T. Rowan is a syndicated columnist.