Much wisdom is to be found in this profile of the late (it seems so strange to write that) Nelson Mandela, written back in July of this year by Rajan Menon. An excerpt:
Mandela had every right to be angry given what apartheid had done to him and to the majority of South Africans. But he did not indulge that emotion. Instead, upon his release from prison, he called for reconciliation and a multiracial democracy and a negotiated transition aimed at creating a new political order based on those principles. His interlocutor was Prime Minister F.W. De Klerk, who had been a stalwart supporter of apartheid and was elected president in 1989. But by then, De Klerk had come to doubt the viability of the system that he had long served. The reasons underlying his change of heart were entirely practical. Apartheid had brought South Africa international isolation. Moreover, it rested on the disenfranchisement of the nonwhite majority and the denial to them of basic rights, and was not sustainable, politically or economically.
Mandela’s genius and farsightedness lay in understanding that De Klerk, who took the courageous step of freeing him, had become (however reluctantly) a proponent of change, and that a peaceful, rather than blood-soaked, path to a new political order was finally possible. Perhaps Mandela’s greatest contribution to his country is the irreplaceable part he played—no one else had the moral stature or commanded the reverence required—in shepherding that delicate, difficult transition.
Mandela served as South Africa’s first popularly elected (and, needless to say, black) president from 1994-1999. He could easily have stayed on, but, in the mode of Cincinnatus and George Washington, he went into retirement, becoming a distinguished elder statesman. He understood, it seems, that he would have done his country little good by becoming a multi-term president—not just because of his age but also because South Africa needed a new generation of leaders. He did not want to be the giant oak tree beneath which nothing substantial can grow. That act of relinquishment required an extraordinary and all-too-rare mix of confidence and self-effacement. For most leaders the norm is hubris, the conflation of self and nation, grandiosity bred by pretensions of indispensability.
Does this giant have blemishes? Of course. In this respect Mandela is an ordinary leader and an ordinary man. The torrent of tributes and assessments that will follow his death will no doubt include criticisms, but he would not mind given his dislike of deification.
As a dissident, Mandela eventually despaired of a nonviolent solution to apartheid. In 1961, along with other members of the African National Congress (ANC), he helped establish Umkhonto We Sizwe (Spear of the Nation, or “MK”), an organization that would conduct bombing attacks against government facilities, launch guerrilla campaigns and mine rural roads. As a free man, president and ex-president, he did not hesitate to express his gratitude to those who had stood behind the anti-apartheid movement and the ANC. He did not care that among those individuals were the likes of Moammar el-Qaddafi and Fidel Castro. Other chinks will be found in Mandela’s armor. Post-apartheid South Africa has numerous problems, among them poverty, inequality, violence, corruption among those wielding economic and political power, and the disappointing quality of Mandela’s successors—Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma—as president. There have been promises undelivered and hopes unrequited. These failures will doubtless be noted. That is to be expected; indeed it is required. Hagiography is not merely cloying, it is counterproductive: it promotes deception and offers no positive lessons for the future.
But in judging Nelson Mandela, fairness demands three things: consideration of the long arc of his life and his short term in office, not a focus on isolated episodes; remembrance of the nature of the system he was fighting; and recollection of the extent to which Western governments, their outlook shaped by a Cold War paradigm, seemed to smugly suggest open-ended “engagement” and dialogue and to caution against “extremism” in the struggle against a system that itself was extremist. When placed in such perspective, the criticisms of Mandela will be akin to gnat bites on an elephant.