Still More Mandela Remembrances

The great man appears set to receive a funeral worthy of his stature. The following excerpt is especially moving to read:

South Africa’s last white president, FW de Klerk, oversaw Mr Mandela’s release in 1990, before the pair received the Nobel Peace Prize together for their parts in ending apartheid.

He told Sky News: “He was a great man, a man of great integrity, a man of great wisdom and vision.

“The two sides of Mandela are Mandela the statesman, who was so focused on the necessity of reconciliation – and that will be his main legacy – but there was also Mandela the man, who was likeable and was a good friend.”

An especially lovely statement, given that Mandela allegedly could not stand de Klerk (I’m sure that de Klerk returned the sentiment–at least from time to time). Personal dislikes aside, it is a tribute to both men that they found a way to work together for the betterment of South Africa, and that they put the interests of their country ahead of their own personal sentiments.

As I have written before, while I recognize the realpolitik that led Mandela to ally himself with some exceedingly undesirable characters, the fact that he allied himself with those characters should not be forgotten in any rush to forget history and deify the man. In the event that there are any who have forgotten the relevant history, Heidi Vogt is around to remind them of it:

After rejoicing over his release from prison in 1990, some democracy activists were dismayed that Mr. Mandela courted rich strongman such as Libya’s Col. Moammar Gadhafi and Nigeria’s Gen. Sani Abacha.

Col. Gadhafi, overthrown and killed during Libya’s Arab Spring uprising in 2011, would remain a strong backer of Mr. Mandela’s African National Congress. In turn, Col. Gadhafi counted on the ruling party’s support for his push to create a “U.S. of Africa,” or central government for the continent.

In 1997, then-President Mandela flew to Libya to present Col. Gadhafi with South Africa’s highest award for a foreigner, the Order of Good Hope. The public statements included no mention of widespread discrimination in Libya against its own black African population.

[. . .]

Nigerian activists spent much of 1995 asking Mr. Mandela to speak out against the pending execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa, the environmental activist who protested frequent oil spills in the country. He had become a cause célèbre for the same Nigerian intellectuals who had helped impose crippling oil sanctions on South Africa’s apartheid regime.

Mr. Saro-Wiwa had been convicted of inciting the murder of four pro-regime chiefs, but he and many allies in the human-rights community insisted he had been framed. Mr. Mandela declined to intervene publicly and Mr. Saro-Wiwa was hanged later that year.

“We felt he’d failed us,” Mr. Saro-Wiwa’s son, Ken Saro-Wiwa Jr., said in June. “I think maybe we expected too much from him,” said the son, now a spokesman for Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan.

But it was also Mr. Mandela who successfully pushed for the group of former British colonies known as the Commonwealth to suspend Nigeria after the executions, cutting it off from technical assistance and meetings and events. The move was seen as brave abroad but may have lost him friends on the continent.

Mr. Mandela also fostered a friendship with Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, who provided arms to his African National Congress during the 1960s when it was an outlawed political party.

“Mandela was an extraordinary man,” said Carlos Alberto Montaner, a Cuban based in Miami. “You can’t judge him by the friends he had. You have to judge him by the incredible things he did. He went into prison as an angry Lenin, and came out as a sensible and peaceful Gandhi.”

The point made in that last paragraph is well taken, and I agree with it. As a political pragmatist myself, I can appreciate acts of political pragmatism committed by others. But that doesn’t change the fact that a number of Mandela’s friends were entirely unsavory. After having repaid any debts that he might have owed those friends due to their support of the anti-apartheid movement, Mandela should have forcefully denounced them for adhering to failed ideologies that immiserated, brutalized and killed off countless innocents, and for heading authoritarian and totalitarian regimes that denied even a semblance of political freedoms and human rights to the citizens oppressed by those regimes. His failure to denounce evil policies and acts committed by his friends was more than a political failure. It was a moral failure. That political and moral failure does not diminish Mandela’s other sterling accomplishments, and the personality and character he displayed upon his release from prison. But it does reveal that Mandela–while heroic and admirable–was not perfect, and may not have even been saintly. To be sure, sainthood is exceedingly difficult to achieve, and certainly, nobody is perfect. But there are people pretending that Mandela was perfect and saintly; thus the need for a corrective to those falsehoods. More on this general issue here; the following snippet is worth quoting:

. . . the picture that the world had of Mr. Mandela was as an almost saintly figure, the faultless “father of the nation.” Images of the heartfelt prayer gatherings and candlelight vigils in recent months as South Africans came to terms with his death have reinforced that view.

But Mr. Mandela was a politician, among the most transformative of his era, but still a politician. As such, he went through the usual ups and downs that characterize any political career.

“Nelson Mandela was not a saint. We would dishonor his memory if we treated him as if he was one,” Pierre de Vos, a law professor, wrote on Friday in The Daily Maverick, an online magazine in South Africa, arguing that Mr. Mandela’s genius lay in his willingness to bend and compromise. “Like all truly exceptional human beings, he was a person of flesh and blood, with his own idiosyncrasies, his own blind spots and weaknesses.”

Sometimes, though, the criticisms came in oblique, roundabout ways.

“Often, criticism of Mandela was disguised as criticism of others,” said Adam Habib, vice chancellor of the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. “Some of the things that his successor, Thabo Mbeki, was criticized for were actually things that Mandela had initiated or supported.”

Those who were critical of things like the government’s slow reaction to the AIDS crisis or the halting steps toward economic equality often heaped their abuse on Mr. Mbeki without acknowledging that Mr. Mandela also shared responsibility for the slowness.

Even officials in the governing party, the African National Congress, would often talk about mistakes that “we” had made, when they were actually Mr. Mandela’s own initiatives, Mr. Habib said. They simply felt that it would be more palatable among their supporters to disguise the true target of their criticism.

Still, as Mr. Mandela’s life drew to a close, there were clearly efforts from all political corners to define his legacy and claim a portion of it. And some saw political calculation at work.

“Who really gains from the elevation of a political figure into an untouchable icon?” Anthony Butler, a University of Cape Town political science professor, wrote in his column in the June 28 issue of South Africa’s Business Day newspaper. “Not Mandela himself, who does not need our plaudits. The mythmakers who claim that a leader is beyond fault are ultimately seeking to shield a whole political class, and not just one individual, from the public scrutiny upon which democracy depends.”

We’ll close (for the moment) with this, which serves t0 accurately describe Mandela’s legacy, while reminding us that the Economist is an indispensable news outlet:

As a politician, and as a man, Mr Mandela had his contradictions (see article). He was neither a genius nor, as he often said himself, a saint. Some of his early writings were banal Marxist ramblings, even if the sense of anger with which they were infused was justifiable. But his charisma was evident from his youth. He was a born leader who feared nobody, debased himself before no one and never lost his sense of humour. He was handsome and comfortable in his own skin. In a country in which the myth of racial superiority was enshrined in law, he never for a moment doubted his right, and that of all his compatriots, to equal treatment. Perhaps no less remarkably, once the majority of citizens were able to have their say he never for a moment denied the right of his white compatriots to equality. For all the humiliation he suffered at the hands of white racists before he was released in 1990, he was never animated by feelings of revenge. He was himself utterly without prejudice, which is why he became a symbol of tolerance and justice across the globe.

Perhaps even more important for the future of his country was his ability to think deeply, and to change his mind. When he was set free, many of his fellow members of the African National Congress (ANC) remained dedicated disciples of the dogma promoted by their party’s supporter, the Soviet Union, whose own sudden implosion helped shift the global balance of power that in turn contributed to apartheid’s demise. Many of his comrades were simultaneously members of the ANC and the South African Communist Party who hoped to dismember the capitalist economy and bring its treasure trove of mines and factories into public ownership. Nor was the ANC convinced that a Westminster-style parliamentary democracy—with all the checks and balances of bourgeois institutions, such as an independent judiciary—was worth preserving, perverted as it had been under apartheid.

Mr Mandela had himself harboured such doubts. But immediately before and after his release from prison, he sought out a variety of opinions among those who, unlike himself, had been fortunate enough to roam the world and compare competing systems. He listened and pondered—and decided that it would be better for all his people, especially the poor black majority, if South Africa’s existing economic model were drastically altered but not destroyed, and if a liberal democracy, under a universal franchise, were kept too.

That South Africa did, in the end, move with relatively little bloodshed to become a multiracial free-market democracy was indeed a near-miracle for which the whole world must thank him. The country he leaves behind is a far better custodian of human dignity than the one whose first democratically elected president he became in 1994. A self-confident black middle class is emerging. Democracy is well-entrenched, with regular elections, a vibrant press, generally decent courts and strong institutions. And South Africa still has easily sub-Saharan Africa’s biggest and most sophisticated economy.

But since Mr Mandela left the presidency in 1999 his beloved country has disappointed under two sorely flawed leaders, Thabo Mbeki and now Jacob Zuma. While the rest of Africa’s economy has perked up, South Africa’s has stumbled. Nigeria’s swelling GDP is closing in on South Africa’s. Corruption and patronage within the ANC have become increasingly flagrant. An authoritarian and populist tendency in ruling circles has become more strident. The racial animosity that Mr Mandela so abhorred is infecting public discourse. The gap between rich and poor has remained stubbornly wide. Barely two-fifths of working-age people have jobs. Only 60% of school-leavers get the most basic high-school graduation certificate. Shockingly for a country so rich in resources, nearly a third of its people still live on less than $2 a day.

Without the protection of Mr Mandela’s saintly aura, the ANC will be more harshly judged. Thanks to its corruption and inefficiency, it already faces competition in some parts of the country from the white-led Democratic Alliance. South Africa would gain if the ANC split, so there were two big black-led parties, one composed of communists and union leaders, the other more liberal and market-friendly.

[. . .]

But such shortcomings—and South Africa’s failings since his retirement from active politics—pale into insignificance when set against the magnitude of his overall achievement. It is hard to think of anyone else in the world in recent times with whom every single person, in every corner of the Earth, can somehow identify. He was, quite simply, a wonderful man.