We will hear much in the coming days about Nelson Mandela’s surplus of saintly qualities, of which there were indeed many. And we will be treated to the interminable and drippy encomiums of pundits and celebrities who couldn’t differentiate the ANC from the BBC, wouldn’t know Joe Slovo from Slobodan Milosevic. We can be snide about it, but they’ll all start with the correct premise: Mandela was a man of unique bravery who designed the dismantling of a political system of unique evil. It was that pigheaded determination--at great personal cost--that liberated his country from the clutches of an illegitimate regime.
Indeed, it’s an understatement to say that South Africa’s white-minority regime, those Afrikaners who treated the country as an undifferentiated mass of plantation workers, was illegitimate. Its foundational ideology, stripped of colonialist doubletalk, was simply one of white supremacy. You needn’t have been assigned Mark Mathabane’s Kaffir Boy (as I was); boycotted bands who refused to boycott Sun City (an atrocious regime we hoped would be upended by an atrocious song); or slept hard in a protest “shanty town” on a manicured Amherst College lawn to understand which ones were the bad guys. It was those grim-faced, jowly white men with the harsh surnames.
And we didn’t need to know much. We hated apartheid more than, say, Baathism or Castroism because it was a simple and understandable morality tale, one to which Americans could relate. As CNN flickers on my JetBlue seatback, I see an endless scroll of photos of an extraordinary political life, crossfaded with the vacant stares of activist celebrities—there’s a smiling Will Smith! The severe Annie Lennox appears to be holding a clenched fist over her head, like a white and Scottish Tommie Smith! The sultry Naomi Campbell looking beautiful and dimwitted! It wasn’t Mandela’s fault that any number of vacuous celebrities blubbered when meeting him, while at the same time assuming they were just in the southern bit of a country called Africa. (And while we’re at it, let’s avoid being too hard on Nelson for his marriage to the atrocious Winnie.)
As Anthony Sampson, Mandela’s authorized biographer, commented, “Cynical politicians … wipe away tears in Mandela's presence, perhaps seeing him as a secular saint who makes their own profession seem noble ... Some have warned me, ‘I don’t want to hear anything bad about him.’” Add to this formulation singers, actors, artists, beauty pageant contestants, and any celebrity occasioned to stand before a microphone and asked to define moral heroism. How did Mandela react to such slobbering sycophancy? Sampson quotes him rejecting beatification, simply commenting “I’m no angel.”
Pull back the lens a bit and one tends to agree with Mandela. It’s certainly true that he glued together a nation torn asunder by racism and authoritarianism. And contemporaneous observers predicted that South Africa would fracture, that a civil war would roil for the next decade. But as South African journalist Rian Malan, one of those doomsayers, points out, it was Mandela who prevented such an outcome. But he also bequeathed to South Africa a shaky unity, an unenviable political situation, and the disastrous and absurd regimes of Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma, both old ANC stalwarts who have claimed his mantle.
When former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher died, we saw a rather different reaction, but one that invoked Mandela to demonstrate the Iron Lady’s callousness. It was said, with ritualistic frequency, that she had denounced Mandela himself as a “terrorist” (she hadn’t). And it was quite rightly—and quite frequently—remarked that Thatcher’s unconscionable indulgence of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet should sully her reputation.
And here is where one must bring the knives out for Mandela. For a man imprisoned for his political beliefs, he had a weakness for those who did the very same thing to their ideological opponents, but were allowed a pass because they supported, for realpolitik reasons, the struggle against Apartheid. So Mandela was painfully slow in denouncing the squalid dictatorship of Robert Mugabe. He was rather fond of Cuban dictator Fidel Castro (it won’t take you long to find photos of the two bear-hugging each other in Havana) and regularly referred to Libyan tyrant Muammar Qaddafi as “Brother Leader of the Revolution of the Libyan Jamahariya.” It was on a return visit to Robbin Island, when Mandela, as president, announced with appalling tone deafness that he would invite both Castro and Qaddafi to South Africa.
In 1997, he unloaded on the Clinton administration when it criticized his embrace of the Libyan dictatorship. “How can they have the arrogance to dictate to us where we should go or which countries should be our friends? Gaddafi is my friend.” In 2000, the Boston Globe reported that when Iran charged 13 Iranian Jews and eight Muslims with espionage on behalf of Israel, Mandela “expressed his satisfaction with assurances from Iranian leaders that their trial would be ‘free and fair.’” To those critical of his stance, he shouted that “you have not been to Iran. I have been to Iran, and your criticism has no foundation," declaring the trial “a purely domestic affair in which citizens of the Islamic Republic are being tried. Foreigners should avoid any action that may be regarded rightly or wrongly as interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign state.” The affairs of non-democracies, Mandela argued, were not the business of democracies.
Thankfully, not all governments indulged this brand of human rights isolationism when Mandela was jailed on Robben Island. The problem with this stance isn’t merely that Mandela was wildly wrong—which he was—about the fairness and independence of the Iranian judiciary or the righteousness of the Cuban and Libyan dictatorships, but his reliance on the old debating trick of shouting "sovereignty" about a crowded political prison. This was, you might remember, the argument of both the apartheid regime and its criminal co-conspirators.
There are few people who reach the saintliness, the otherworldliness of Mandela, with the possible exceptions of the Dalai Lama, Mohandas Gandhi, and Mother Teresa (all three famously criticized by Christopher Hitchens, as Mandela was by his conservative brother Peter). And while Mandela was richly deserving of his Nobel Prize and earned the overused appellation "great man," he wasn't a saint. Politicians rarely are. And it does damage to the historical record to pretend otherwise.