Nelson Mandela was no saint.
Not even Bishop Desmond Tutu thought of him that way, “guffawing at the idea that Mandela was anything so dry, hollow and uninteresting.”
He took up “armed struggle” against the South African state that denied him rights based on his race—becoming the leader of the armed faction of the ANC that emerged after the Sharpville massacre to carry out indiscriminate bombings against innocent South Africans. The Church Street bombing alone, carried out under his successor in the role Oliver Tambo, killed 19 people, and injured many more.
Mandela himself was not in prison for giving out too many hugs. He started a guerrilla army, and to the end of his days he never renounced the violence he started, and then inspired.
In power he remained a member of the South African communist party. He declared the Cuban revolution “a source of inspiration to all freedom-loving people.” He opposed moves against the likes of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, who was a longtime ANC donor (“It is our duty to give support to the brother leader” he said). It took years of Mugabe’s murderous mayhem to finally earn Mandela’s mild condemnation. He closed his eyes to the AIDs/HIV pandemic that killed millions of his citizens, to the crime spree that made South Africa the murder capital of the world, and to the corruption that littered his administration
Mandela was no saint.
There was one thing however for which he should always be revered: Instead of taking revenge when he took the presidency, he took up restraint. And that wholly unexpected move became the balm thrown over the iniquities of the past that allowed the new rainbow nation to avoid the thunder clouds that could have destroyed it.
In comparison with other politicians, in Africa and beyond, he stands out for his self-restraint. As free South Africa’s first president, he volunteered for only a single term in office. Look just next door, to Zimbabwe, for a striking contrast: Its near-despotic leader, Robert Mugabe, is now in his fourth, disastrous, decade as ruler.
South Africa when Mandela left prison was scarred by apartheid, and thoughts of revenge were rife. Every other African country had collapsed after independence, and expectations were little different over this new regime. An African bloodletting as savage as the Balkan slaughter looked possible—with all the generations of further hatred at which the Balkan adversaries themselves proved so adept at nursing.
Instead, he began his rule very differently. Persuaded by China’s leaders to change the Soviet-style economics he still embraced when leaving prison, he allowed “South Africa’s state-run economy to open up and flourish.” Or at least to have that chance.
Virtually on election day, he began by inviting buy-in over a new constitution from his new opponents. And he cemented this far-seeing wisdom with a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which simply sought out the truth instead of seeking retribution, thereby inviting those who should be embittered by the tyranny and outright atrocities of the past to put it all behind them and live in peace. It worked.
So instead of bloodshed, there was a peaceful handover and handshakes between former adversaries. This astonishing result began with and was made possible by Mandela’s own exercise of restraint.
His Truth and Reconciliation Commission was both a masterstroke, and a model. What it made possible was in its own way as symbolic as the day Ulysses S. Grant shook hands with Robert E. Lee on the steps of Appomattox Courthouse after Lee had fought for five years in defence of black slavery; or the Queen shaking hands with former IRA Commander Martin McGuinness in Belfast; as the desire for peaceful coexistence in Chile after the fall of Pinochet, instead of the bloody retribution that might have happened there (well portrayed in Ariel Dorfman’s 1990 play Death & the Maiden; as the end of conflict we can only hope one day inspires those nursing grievances in Palestine. Inspiring it was the understanding, or the hope, that as long as right is finally recognised and both sides can agree, then in the long term peace and prosperity is far better all round for everyone than years, decades, generations of war and conflict and further horror—and that even shaking hands with murderers, on both sides, might be worth it for the sake of what peace can achieve.
Without Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s apartheid nightmare eventually would have come to an end… But, without Mandela’s towering moral and political leadership, the transition would have been long, ugly, and bloody beyond measure…
When it comes to national leadership at a time of fragility and transition, so much seems to depend on the luck of the draw. Will a country find itself with a Milošević or a Mugabe; an Atatürk or an Arafat; a Rabin who can see and seize the moment, and change course, or someone who never will?
South Africa was lucky – almost miraculously so – to have had Nelson Mandela. His memory will be cherished for as long as history continues to be written…
That’s probably a far better epitaph than sainthood.
PS: And the kerfuffle about Minto going to Nelson Mandela’s state funeral? You might not like John Minto any more than I do but, for goodness’ sake, it’s Mandela’s funeral, and he did. When told in prison of Minto’s mob closing down the Springboks’’s match against Waikate, he reportedly said it “felt like the sun had come out.” So undoubtedly Nelson would have wanted him there. And even Trevor Richards, if he can be found. It’s not like there won’t be room for them in a stadium that seats 100,000.
If the taxpayer is going to send other assorted numpties on our behalf, then why not them. If Minto going bothers you that much, write to the Parliamentary Travel Office and ask them to make the ticket one way.
UPDATE 1: More from around the traps:
* A local leftwinger with a history in the anti-apartheid movement bewails all the wailing here at home: “I haven’t seen such an outpouring of mush since the death of Princess Diana. While Mandela’s prison sentence made him a personage of rather more gravitas than the royal airhead, the level of grief over the death of someone hardly anyone in New Zealand ever even met is as apparently strange. In both cases, it seems that much of the public has become extremely emotionally invested. Indeed, it seems that people unwilling or unprepared to fight for anything themselves, have invested in these folks qualities and achievements which they admire and perhaps feel run counter to a more market-driven way of life (compassion, kindness, fairness, principle). But this kind of emotional investment tells us more about the investors, and contemporary New Zealand society, than it does about Mandela (or Diana Spencer).”
Mandela and New Zealand: our ‘Diana moment?’ - Philip Ferguson, LIBERATION
* “Much will be written about Mandela in the coming days, but little of it will deal directly with the Apartheid system, particularly its economic aspects. Apartheid is widely misunderstood as a system based purely on racial prejudice, while it was actually a more complex mix of economic controls (primarily, restrictions on capital ownership and movements of labour) and racial separatism — what Tom Hazlett calls “socialism with a racist face.” Apartheid’s political support came primarily from working-class (white) Afrikaners and their labour unions eager to suppress competition from unskilled black labour. As Hazlett notes: ”The conventional view is that apartheid was devised by affluent whites to suppress poor blacks. In fact, the system sprang from class warfare and was largely the creation of white workers struggling against both the black majority and white capitalists.”
Mandela and the Economics of Apartheid – Peter Klein, CIRCLE BASTIAT
"One of Mandela’s greatest achievements was to wean [the ANC] away from the ruthless hard‑line Marxism that had long been such an influential part of its ideology..."TELEGRAPH
UPDATE 2: Useful idiots John Pilger and John Minto were not opposed to racism, they were opposed to capitalism—and used (and still use) Marxist wedge tactics against it. What were the anti-tour protests about for Minto? A chance to drive a wedge into the system using race.
John Minto was one of the heroes of my formative years says the Poneke blog's author in 2008 [hat tip David Farrar].
At the time, I thought Minto was driven by the same kind of repugnance of the racist apartheid system that motivated the opposition of many other New Zealanders. Apartheid was a stain on humanity.
In 1995, Mandela visited New Zealand for the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting being held in Auckland. He was mobbed in the streets everywhere he went. He was a hero of almost everyone of my generation and of almost everyone who had marched against the Springboks 14 years before. The one anti-tour protester to whom he was not a hero was a profound surprise. I went to a meeting Mandela attended at the St Matthews in the City church in Auckland. To my astonishment, and dismay, John Minto, who was there, hectored the great man for not kicking private enterprise and transnational companies out of South Africa after apartheid ended. A bewildered Mandela asked Minto how he expected people to find work if their employers were banished. It was at that moment I realised Minto was not driven by opposition to racism but by opposition to the entire capitalist system. [Emphasis in the original.]
Pilger was equally outraged at Comrade Mandela’s backsliding. Writing in the Marxist Counterpunch, he recounts asking Mandela in a 1995 interview
why the pledges he and the ANC had given on his release from prison in 1990 had not been kept. The liberation government, Mandela had promised, would take over the apartheid economy, including the banks – and “a change or modification of our views in this regard is inconceivable”. Once in power, the party’s official policy to end the impoverishment of most South Africans, the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP), was abandoned, with one of his ministers boasting that the ANC’s politics were Thatcherite.
“You can put any label on it if you like,” he replied. “ …but, for this country, privatisation is the fundamental policy.”
“That’s the opposite of what you said in 1994.”
“You have to appreciate that every process incorporates a change.”
You have to divide by ten to account for Pilger’s inveterate lying, but asked that same question on another occasion, Mandela replied that he failed to see how he could help his people by banishing all their employers.
If the story is true that it was Chinese leaders who turned around Mandela’s anti-Soviet economics, they clearly did a good job.