Nelson Mandela, the former president of South Africa, died yesterday (Dec. 5, 2013) at the age of 95. A few months ago I had the opportunity to visit South Africa. I was amazed by a two things while there. First, some of the museums that we visited tried to present Mandela not just as a saint but as a real person whose story was not as perfect as the eulogies we are hearing today. For example, the Apartheid museum in Johannesburg has interesting video footage of blacks during the 1990s ripping down election posters of Mandela and stomping on his face. While news reports today suggest universal love for the man, the news footage from twenty years ago did not show that same kind of feelings.
The second thing that amazed me was that apartheid had its origin in the Great Depression. Many South African whites and blacks lost their jobs during the 1930s. The white response was to ban blacks from jobs and restrict their movements. This resulted in less competition in the labor market for white workers, which boosted their earnings. We think of the Great Depression as primarily lasting just during the 1930s. However, it became clear to me in South Africa that institutions and policies set up to combat this huge economic downturn continued on for many decades. One of my takeaways from the trip was that economic events can continue to impact society long after the actual economic event has receded into a dim memory.