Nelson Mandela, R.I.P.



Among world leaders, Nelson Mandela had unmatched moral authority. When George W. Bush awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2002, he said, “It is this moral stature that has made Nelson Mandela perhaps the most revered statesman of our time.” Bush could have done without the hedge word “perhaps.” Mandela was by far the most revered statesman of our time. Every July 18th is Nelson Mandela Day. The United Nations declared it so, in 2009. Mandela was born on July 18, 1918. Yesterday, the great man died at 95.

The reverence the world feels for him has to do, in part, with the nature of his adversary: the white, racist apartheid government of South Africa. A Havel or a Sharansky could not achieve equivalent stature: Hatred of their adversaries is far less universal. White racism is held to be probably the greatest evil of our time, and Mandela was a lion against it.

He joined the African National Congress in 1944, when he was 26. In 1960 came the Sharpeville massacre, and the ANC was banned. It went violent and underground. Mandela was a founder of Umkhonto we Sizwe, or Spear of the Nation: the ANC’s military wing. He went to Ethiopia and Algeria to be trained in the guerrilla arts. He returned to South Africa to apply them.

He was arrested on August 5, 1962, and narrowly escaped the death penalty. He was sentenced to life in prison. He would spend 27 years there.

Because he advocated the armed struggle, he could not be counted a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International. He was not imprisoned for what he thought but for what he was doing. Amnesty International found ways to support him nonetheless, and so did most of the world. In 1976, the apartheid government offered to release him, on the condition that he go to a Bantustan (to Transkei, specifically). He refused. In 1985, the government again offered to release him, on the condition that he renounce violence. He refused. The president, P. W. Botha, began to negotiate with him anyway.

In 1990, the government of F. W. de Klerk released him — though Mandela still advocated the armed struggle (“We have no option but to continue”). Over years of painstaking negotiation, he and de Klerk worked out a transition to full, multiracial democracy. They jointly won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993. In Oslo, Mandela famously declared, “Let a new age dawn!”

It did, and Mandela’s inauguration on May 10, 1994, was one of the great political occasions of the age. Some 45 heads of state attended. Then Mandela rendered his greatest service: his presidency. This was a presidency of truth and reconciliation. South Africa could have gone the way of Zimbabwe, with the attendant thuggery, murder, and tyranny. Many feared it would, and not unreasonably. Instead, South Africa took a democratic path, however stony. And that was largely thanks to Nelson Mandela, who set a shining example.

Is there more to Mandela than his democratic greatness? Sadly, yes. During his long imprisonment, he was supported by some of the worst actors in the world: the Soviets, Qaddafi, Castro, Arafat, and so on. They supported him not because they were kindhearted gents but because they were warring against the “West,” of which the apartheid government was considered a part. It was only natural for Mandela to appreciate support wherever it came from. But it should also have been natural, especially after his release, to recognize that his supporters had their own political prisoners. And these prisoners were kept in infinitely worse conditions than his.

He chose not to use his moral authority in behalf of these prisoners. That was one thing. But he did not remain silent: He used his moral authority to buttress the prisoners’ jailers and torturers. He praised Qaddafi’s “commitment to the fight for peace and human rights in the world.” (One of Mandela’s grandsons, incidentally, was named for Qaddafi.) Of Fidel Castro’s Cuba, he said, “There’s one thing where that country stands out head and shoulders above the rest. That is in its love for human rights and liberty.”

Just think what a word from Mandela would have done for Qaddafi’s prisoners, for example. In point of fact, he did care about the plight of one Libyan prisoner. That was Abdelbaset Megrahi, the state agent convicted in the Lockerbie bombing (which killed 270 innocents). Jay Nordlinger tells the story in Peace, They Say, a history of the Nobel Peace Prize:

In 2002, Mandela visited Megrahi in his prison cell at Glasgow. He pleaded for better conditions for this prisoner. “He says he is being treated well by the officials, but when he takes exercise he has been harassed by a number of prisoners. He cannot identify them because they shout at him from their cells through the windows and sometimes it is difficult even for the officials to know from which quarter the shouting occurs.”

During this same period, Qaddafi and Libya were imprisoning five Bulgarian nurses and one Palestinian doctor, whom they had falsely accused of infecting children with AIDS. The prisoners were not shouted at through windows: They were tortured beyond human description, with rape, dogs, electricity, and so on. One of the nurses, in her desperation, tried to kill herself by chewing the veins in her wrist. She had no other recourse.

Mandela’s moral sense could be horribly askew. In 2003, he opposed the Iraq War, as a great many all over the world did. But Mandela opposed it with a peculiar venom. Two months before the war began, he said, “What I am condemning is that one power, with a president who has no foresight, who cannot think properly, is now wanting to plunge the world into a holocaust.” He could not see any moral value in the removal of Saddam Hussein from power. “If there is a country that has committed unspeakable atrocities in the world, it is the United States of America.”

Nelson Mandela, like many another great man, had blind spots and other defects. His selectivity where human rights were concerned was hard to fathom. But he certainly knew that apartheid was wrong. And the good he did, especially as president of the new South Africa, was enormous. The continent of Africa could do with more such leaders, and so could the world at large. His Nobel Peace Prize is richly deserved, and so is the gratitude of his country.

Remembering Mandela
The world bade farewell to Nelson Mandela on December 5. A towering political figure and moral leader, Mandela’s impact and influence spread far beyond the nation he helped lead to freedom. Here’s a look back at Mandela on the world stage.
Imprisoned for 27 years by the apartheid South African government, Mandela became the country’s first president selected in a free and open election just three years after being released. As president he helped to rebuild the nation’s government and set in on a course for reconciliation.
After stepping aside, his stature seemed to grow even more as he spoke to admirers around the world, bringing his message of freedom and dignity to millions. Pictured, Mandela speaks at Trafalgar Square in London in 2001.
A NEW BEGINNING: Mandela and former wife Winnie on the day he was released from prison, February 11, 1990.
Mandela speaks to a crowd of more than 100,000 at Soccer City Stadium in Soweto on the day of his release.
Speaking in Port Elizabeth, 1990
Waving to crowds at Wembley Arena in London, 1990
Mandela gets a hug during a visit to Soweto, 1990
Mandela with President George Bush, 1990
Mandela speaks at the United Nations, 1990
Mandela and South African President F.W. de Klerk display their Nobel Peace Prizes in Oslo, 1993
Mandela at an election rally in Mmabatho, 1994
Campaigning at the University of Venda, 1994
Mandela casts his vote in the country’s first open and free election, 1994
Mandela takes the oath of office as the country’s first black president, April 29, 1994
Mandela with archbishop Desmond Tutu at an open-air service in Soweto shortly after being elected president, 1994.
Mandela celebrates the signing of the new South African constitution, 1996
Mandela celebrates his 80th birthday, 1998
Mandela speaks in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol, 1998
Mandela with his successor as South Afrtica’s president, Thabo Mbeki, 1999
Mandela with rock musician Bono in Johannesburg, 2002
Mandela outside his former prison cell on Robben Island, 2003
Mandela at the Nelson Mandea Foundation in Johannesbrg, 2004. (The image behind him is from his days with the African National Congress.)
Former South African presidents F.W. de Klerk (left) and Mandela join then-President Thabo Mbeki in 2004
Laughing with journalists in George ahead of the “46664 Concert,” named after his prison identification number, 2005.
Mandela with Jesse Jackson, 2005
Mandela at the White House with President George W. Bush, 2005
Lifting the Webb Ellis Trophy won by the South Africa Sprinboks rugby team, 2007
Surrounded by recipients of the Mandela Rhodes scholarship in Johannesburg, 2008
Mandela with great granddaughter Zenani Mandela in Deipkloof, Soweto, 2008
Mandela attends the inauguration of President Jacob Zuma, 2009
Mandela appears via video at the Mandela Day concert at Radio City Music Hall, 2009.
Mandela attends the State of the Nation address by President Jacob Zuma, 2009
Mandela waves to the crowd at Soccer City Stadium during the World Cup in Johannesburg, 2010.
The statue of Nelson Mandela outside of Drakenstein Correction Center (formerly the Victor Verster Prison), where he was imprisoned for 27 years.
Updated: Dec. 06, 2013