Nelson Mandela: a Transformative Figure with Flaws and a Past who Nevertheless Transformed Himself and a Nation

While a commander in the African National Congress, committed to the violent overthrow of the South African regime and its apartheid system, Mandela was captured and imprisoned for 27 years. Rumor has it that his 1962 arrest was aided by the CIA. Since the United States considered the ANC a terrorist organization, it may in fact have been the truth but perhaps we will never know. In 1964 he was sentenced to life for violence against the regime. One source claimed that if Mandela promised to foreswear any further violence, he could go free; an offer that was, reportedly, given to him numerous times.

Cal Thomas remembers an interview that John Lofton of The Washington Times and he were granted in August of 1985. Held inside the Pollsmoor Prison near Capetown, South Africa, Mandela gave a tour of the prison. Logically, one would expect that he were confined to a cell yet the guards seemed to allow him, as Thomas described it, “to roam at will.” The reporters observed a gentle spirit in the man which made Thomas wonder whether it were the years of imprisonment that changed him.

At the time of the interview, Mandela was not interested in peaceful reconciliation, a position that he would embrace years later. While Mandela denied in that interview that he was a communist, Thomas cites Professor Stephen Ellis, a British historian, who claimed in 2012 to have “new evidence” that in his early years, Mandela held “a senior rank in the South African Communist Party.” During the interview, Thomas observed that Mandela did in fact defend communism as a better system than apartheid. While few would dispute that apartheid was evil and thus wrong, a transfer of systems to communism would be akin to exchanging one poison for another, in my opinion.

A piece of legislation drafted by the late Senator Ted Kennedy and his fellow senator, Lowell Weicker in 1986 sought to slap economic sanction on South Africa. This anti-apartheid legislation was opposed by President Ronald Reagan who vetoed it, claiming that such an action could in fact make life worse for South African blacks. In a dramatic move, not seen very often in the United States, the U.S. Congress overturned Reagan’s veto and the sanctions’ regime became law. Pressure on Pretoria grew as the U.S. sanctions’ bill also included a prohibition on direct air links and a cutting of aid that was so needed by South Africa.

Mandela became South Africa’s first black president after the struggle versus the regime was over in the 1990’s, with the crumbling of apartheid in 1994. Nonetheless, he continued to be painted by his harshest critics as a communist sympathizer and “an unrepentant terrorist.” Ironically, it was only five years ago, in 2008, that Nelson Mandela, then 90 years old, and his African National Congress colleagues were removed from the U.S. terror watch list. Former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice recalled being embarrassed, she said, to have to issue a waiver each time the Mandela delegation came to the United States, even for United Nations General Assembly meetings.

U.S. President Barack Obama’s reaction to Mandela’s death was noteworthy. 

“A free South Africa, at peace with itself, that's an example to the world, and that's Madiba's legacy to the nation that he loved, " Obama said, utilizing Mandela’s clan name. He further described Mandela as “a man who took history in his hands, and bent the arc of the moral universe toward justice.” In addition, he ordered U.S. flags at half-staff which is a tribute unheard of for foreign dignitaries.

One of the reasons that I wished to dig further on Nelson Mandela is that the reaction to him in Western media and by Western politicians seemed to gloss over the man’s history which was an important part of who he was and stood in such stark contrast to the leader he became. The world’s almost idol worship of Nelson Mandela is not shared in South Africa, which has a more human perspective of on the man. This would be quite understandable since South Africa would experience the decisions that were made, for good or for ill, under a President Mandela. It is one thing to curse the darkness, it is quite another to have to light the candles. Criticism and politics go hand in hand since compromise and concessions are the necessary engines to progress.

According to Rick Lyman, in the New York Times, Pierre de Vos, a law professor, wrote in a South African online magazine on the day after Mandela died that “Nelson Mandela was not a saint. We would dishonor his memory if we treated him as if he was one . . . Like all truly exceptional human beings, he was a person of flesh and blood, with his own idiosyncrasies, his own blind spots and weaknesses.”

Lyman also quoted Anthony Butler, a University of Cape Town political science professor who wrote, “Who really gains from the elevation of a political figure into an untouchable icon? 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.”

Mandela was criticized for emphasizing reconciliation to the point of leaving human rights abuses unpunished. To the critics, this left the victims of such crimes to live with the consequences while the perpetrators went free. Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, his x-wife, publicly condemned him for what she called a bad deal for blacks that left them economically on the outside, as she saw it. 

I find it unfortunate that Western media and Western politicians gloss over his past and his negatives.  I think that his story is a powerful one made all the more so because of the personal transformation that led to a nation's transformation.  To leave that out is to miss the opportunity to encourage others to change course and thus begin a movement that is both personal and powerful.  

Nelson “Madiba” Mandela died December 5, 2013 at the age of 95. 

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by Jim Maceda, NBC News

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