During the holidays, we're sad to see Nelson Mandela pass away at the age of 95. We will also inevitably turn on the television to watch the classic Christmas film "It's a Wonderful Life."
Well, what if South Africa were like this movie? What if, while languishing in prison, Nelson Mandela wished he had never been born? What if he got his wish? What if he had died in prison? What would have happened to the Republic of South Africa?
Even if you don't believe in angels, you are probably wondering how we could tell whether such an event could have happened. It just so happens that there is a way. That's because just north of South Africa is the country formerly known as Rhodesia, which is called Zimbabwe.
That country never had a Nelson Mandela. But it did have a pro-apartheid white government, blacks who opposed this regime, international sanctions and United Nations pressure which eventually led to a political change. Zimbabwe lets us see how South Africa could have turned out if Nelson Mandela had never been born.
So how did Zimbabwe turn out?
The country found itself under the rule of Robert Mugabe, a merciless leader who found ways to oust all political opponents, including former allies, and make Zimbabwe a personalist dictatorship. This autocrat also ran this resource-rich country, with excellent farmland, into the ground. Zimbabwe almost always leads the international community in political corruption.
And when he had run the economy into the ground, Mugabe turned on whites, calling for land occupation that led to racial killings. Blacks calling for democracy were called pro-white traitors and oppressed. Zimbabwe's a mess.
But Mandela was born. And he didn't die in prison, as some speculated that he might have. Once released, he was elected president of South Africa. But unlike Mugabe, Mandela brought whites like F.W. DeKlerk into his government, as well as his Zulu rivals. He adopted free-market policies instead of the radical "socialism-communism" that his opponents claimed he would. And, as featured in the movie "Invictus," he used sports to unify the country racially, culminating in helping usher in the continent's first major sporting event, the 2010 World Cup.
South Africa's not perfect, of course. It has high levels of crime, like most Third World countries. But it lacks the same levels of political autocracy and corruption. Leaders follow Mandela's ideas on term limits, for example.
After his single term in office, Mandela turned his efforts toward peace, working hard to try and bring a settlement to conflicts like the one in Burundi between Hutus and Tutsis, trying to prevent another Rwanda-style massacre.
So we've discovered we were really fortunate that Mandela didn't die in prison, just as we're glad that George Bailey didn't commit suicide. Mandela showed, after his incarceration, that his life was really worth something.
John A. Tures, associate professor of political science, LaGrange College; firstname.lastname@example.org.