If all you knew about Nelson Mandela came from watching American media coverage of his death, you might think his greatest accomplishment was his willingness to forgive. “Capacity to forgive made South African leader extraordinary,” declared Juan Williams on Fox News. “Nelson Mandela was a stranger to hate,” claimed Secretary of State John Kerry. “He rejected recrimination in favor of reconciliation and knew the future demands we move beyond the past.” Added George H.W. Bush, “I watched in wonder as Nelson Mandela had the remarkable capacity to forgive his jailers.”
These statements aren’t wrong. Mandela’s refusal to seek revenge was extraordinary, and it helped South Africa find peace. But for Americans, it’s also the least challenging part of his legacy. Obsessing about Mandela’s capacity for forgiveness while ignoring his criticism of America’s lawless, quasi-imperial foreign policy is like fixating on Martin Luther King Jr.’s commitment to integration and nonviolence while forgetting his “Poor People’s Campaign,” which in 1968 sought to physically disrupt the federal government until Washington agreed to spend $30 billion helping America’s poor.
Besides, Mandela didn’t reconcile with white South Africans out of some kind of Christlike purity. He always insisted on something in return. In 1985, then South African president P.W. Botha offered to let Mandela out of prison if he renounced violence. It was the sixth time an apartheid leader had offered Mandela a conditional release from jail. And for the sixth time, Mandela refused, insisting that black South Africans would not lay down their arms until the country’s white government did the same. “Let him renounce violence,” Mandela declared, through his daughter. “I cannot sell my birthright, nor am I prepared to sell the birthright of the people to be free.” The African National Congress did not suspend the armed struggle for another six years, until Mandela had been unconditionally released from prison and the ANC unbanned.
In the early 1990s, when Botha’s successor, F.W. de Klerk, proposed creating an interim government in which whites would retain a veto, Mandela refused and for a time withdrew the ANC from negotiations in protest against the white government’s complicity in a massacre against ANC supporters.
And perhaps most important of all, Mandela refused to grant legal absolution to the perpetrators of apartheid’s crimes until they publicly confessed their guilt. In the run-up to South Africa’s first free elections, de Klerk granted clemency to 4,000 members of the South African police and security services. But after winning those elections, the ANC overturned de Klerk’s action and created the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which required detailed, public confessions by anyone seeking amnesty. In the words of Mandela ally Bishop Desmond Tutu, who ran the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, “True reconciliation exposes the awfulness, the abuse, the hurt, the truth…because in the end only an honest confrontation with reality can bring real healing. Superficial reconciliation can bring only superficial healing.”
Why, in recent days, has the American media focused so much more on Mandela’s capacity for reconciliation than his demand for truth? Perhaps it’s because, all too often, America wants reconciliation without truth itself. Americans want Iran to give up its nuclear weapons program, halt its support for terrorism, and embrace democracy, but when President Obama acknowledged America’s role in subverting Iranian democracy during the Cold War, conservatives flayed him for apologizing for America. In 1995, the Smithsonian was forced to cancel an exhibit on the bombing of Hiroshima when politicians and veterans’ groups called it unpatriotic. In 2010, Obama slipped an apology to Native Americans into that year’s Defense Appropriations Act but didn’t hold a public event to announce it or even issue a press release, presumably because he feared the political consequences of being accused of running down America again.
In portraying Mandela as a saintly figure who forgave his abusers and asked nothing in return, we ignore the real message of his evolving relationship with the white South Africans who abused him: that you can’t expect forgiveness if you won’t admit that you’ve done anything wrong. In Maya Angelou’s poem at Bill Clinton’s first inaugural, she said, “History, despite its wrenching pain / Cannot be unlived, and if faced / With courage need not be lived again.” That’s Mandela’s message to Americans, too. I’m just not sure it’s been heard yet.