Nelson Mandela was the closest thing the world had to a secular saint. His life story, of suffering honourably and nobly for his cause and his eventual vindication and redemption plays out like the story of a great Christian martyr. After his election, a South African Newspaper ran a front page interview with him with the banner “MANDELA: I’M NOT THE MESSIAH”. One would have that thought this goes without saying, but that didn’t stop both The Telegraph‘s chief political commentator, and Nigel Farage calling him one of the only men who can be compared to Jesus.
Mandela was blessed with a seemingly inhuman power of forgiveness and a presence that sparkled with vigour, determination and wisdom. He endured unimaginable personal and political suffering and never stopped fighting for the end of an ugly, evil system. When asked about dying in an interview with Time, he said with a faint smile, “men come and men go.” It seems he faced even death with the utmost stoicism and dignity.
Every politician of note anywhere in the world, especially on the political right has showered him with praise, perhaps hoping that this would confer a modicum of his saintly aura upon them. Some, David Cameron being a prime example, desperately try to bury any allegation that when Mandela was fighting his great struggle, their sympathies lay on the wrong side of history.
But behind the plaster saint, there is a more complicated, darker and much more interesting Mandela; a man no less heroic, but a flawed man, whose attitude to questions such as violence, inequality, wealth and power are much more contradictory than recent commemorations suggest. His legacy in South Africa is mixed; while the scourge of legal apartheid has been eradicated, apartheid itself has not ended. Peter Oborne, in one of the most fawning obituaries, wrote of the transition from apartheid: “historians will debate for ever why everything went so wonderfully right.” He is very wrong.
The economic and social apartheid, the most toxic legacy of white nationalist governments remains as strong as ever. Whites make up only 9% of the population, yet own 70% of all land, are five times more likely than blacks to go into higher education, and earn an average of six times the amount. Black unemployment has more than doubled since 1991, to 46%, and life expectancy has fallen by nine years since 1994, largely due to the AID’s epidemic. The New York Times has veiled this legacy, by saying “while a saintly figure abroad lost some lustre at home as he strained to hold together a divided populace and to turn a fractious liberation movement into a credible government.”
When Mandela came to power in South Africa’s first democratic elections, his program was one dedicated to combating entrenched inequality, nationalising important businesses and giving shares to blacks who had been legally barred, as well as a comprehensive program of land reform to restore land to blacks who had literally had it stolen from them. However, Mandela, despite being nominally a socialist and having lived the life of an ascetic, was largely in awe of the power and glamour associated with the very rich. He was unabashed about taking party donations from any rich industry tycoon who wished to associate their name with his sainthood. He publicly supported regimes such as Suharto’s in Indonesia, which had provided the ANC with funds during its years of struggle, despite the fact that it was carrying out a near genocide in Indonesia. Rather than take measures which could have structurally reduced inequality, Mandela’s administration followed the advice of the World Bank and the IMF to sharply liberalize the economy in the hopes that wealth would “trickle down,” but as any cursory glance at the statistics of South Africa will show you, this was merely snake oil. Despite nearly 20 years of steady economic growth, wealth has merely consolidated into the hands of a few and the rampant inequality in South African society has grown unabated.
Mandela’s governments other tragic failure was its inability to deal with South Africa’s greatest crisis since the rise of apartheid, the beginning of the AIDS epidemic. Edwin Cameron, a South African Supreme Court judge and the first major figure in the administration to publicly admit they were HIV positive, described him as having virtually no time in his agenda to consider the AIDS epidemic. “’He, more than anyone else, could have reached into the minds and behaviour of young people” said Cameron. A message from Mandela, a man of saint-like, in some ways almost god-like, stature, would have been effective. He didn’t do it. The first time Mandela even mentioned it in public was in 2007, by which time infection rates had grown to nearly 10% of the country, and even then it was in Switzerland. In loving condemnation, Cameron stated “I think the seductions of international adulation reached the human fallibility of this wonderful man.” Mandela’s successor, Thabo Mbeki, moved from inaction to crazed lunacy by declaring, with a fringe group of pseudoscientists that HIV was not the cause of AIDS and turned away offers of freely provided anti-retrovirals. One in particular, Neverapine, could have greatly reduced the rate of mother to infant transmission during childbirth, was rejected almost entirely. A Harvard study later blamed the South African administration for causing approximately 330,000 deaths.
Whatever judgement history finally makes on Mandela, it will be hard to see his time in executive office with the anything of the rosiness in which his imprisonment in Robben Island is portrayed; an imprisonment where he was a great symbol for justice, but held little power. Nor should it be forgotten that the transition to apartheid was hardly of all his own doing. Without the now forgotten F.W. de Klerk, an Afrikaner Gorbachev who realised that apartheid had no moral or political credibility to speak of, and was willing to lead a peaceful transition in partnership with Mandela, it is unlikely that the White nationalist regime would have given over power as peacefully. If not for de Klerk, the anti-Apartheid struggle could have continued for far longer.
He was notorious for failings in his personal life as well. Confidants and family record that he showed scant kindness towards his children, one of them remarking that “sometimes a child must simply accept that a parent’s love does not exist.” He was reportedly deeply in love with his wife Winnie Mandela; but that led him to endorse her policy of neck lacing, an infamous South African method of torture where a tire full of gasoline is tied around a victim and lit so they burn to death. His political friendships, with men such as Muamar Gaddaffi, Fidel Castro or Suharto hardly show that he was always on the side of those fighting for justice and against tyranny. Then again, with Reagan and Thatcher holding the shared belief the apartheid regime was an important bulwark against Communism, and publicly labelling him a terrorist, perhaps it is easy to forgive him for taking the friends he could get.
In the end then, are we left with a Mandela who is more of a symbol for a better world? I would argue his symbolism is one of the most important gifts he gave the South African people. It was because of his legendary stature in the African resistance movement that he was seen as a figure that could negotiate on behalf of the disenfranchised black majority, with the Apartheid government. It was because of the symbolism of his forgiveness that he was able to set an example that steered South Africa away from the bloody racial war that so many had been predicting. And it was because of his symbolism as such a hero that he was able to have the formerly boycotted South Africa return to the family of nations. Most importantly, it gave him the ability to be a unifying figure and convince a country, plagued by so many years of bitterness, to follow him. He used his symbolism to great effect, never letting bitterness or anger taint his public image, lest the illusion vanish, and with it his power.
Look at any great man or woman of history, and you will likely be disappointed by a dark side that has been quietly ignored. Martin Luther King was a womanizer who plagiarized his doctoral thesis. The great theorist of liberty, Thomas Jefferson, was a slave owner. Gandhi was a desperately religious fanatic. Your favourite writer or artist of history will undoubtedly have held some kind of sinister prejudice; my own, George Orwell was for his part deeply homophobic. All our great heroes have feet of clay. Yet this does not mean we have to do without their heroic writing, courage, oratory or leadership. History will vindicate Nelson Mandela, but whether as a heroic or a tragic figure remains to be seen.