My friend James Deciuttis once asked me very directly, “Are you ever wrong?” It was not asked with bile, but very straightforwardly, as if asking if I ever had visited Spain.
I told James that if he referred to my writing, speaking, and political activism, I have made many bad calls and misjudgments. I can look forward to a brand-new year of them in just 27 days. In one particular case, however, I really blew it very, very, very badly. But I was not alone.
After all, Mandela had spent 27 years locked up in Robben Island prison due to his leadership of the African National Congress. The ANC was a violent, pro-Communist organization. By the guiding light of Ronald Wilson Reagan, many young conservatives like me spent much of the 1980s fighting Marxism-Leninism — from the classrooms of radical campuses to the battlefields of Grenada, Nicaragua, and El Salvador, both overtly and covertly. Having seen Communists terrorize nations around the world while the Berlin Wall still stood, Mandela looked like one more butcher waiting to take his place on the 20th Century’s blood-soaked stage.
The example of the Ayatollah Khomeini also was fresh in our minds. He went swiftly from exile in Paris to edicts in Tehran and quickly turned Iran into a vicious and bloodthirsty dictatorship at the vanguard of militant Islam.
It’s mourning in South Africa. This man and woman, grieving outside Mandela’s
Johannesburg home, embody the late moral leader’s legacy. (Photo: Reuters)
Far, far, far from any of that, Nelson Mandela turned out to be one of the 20th Century’s great moral leaders, right up there with Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He also was a statesman of considerable weight. If not as significant on the global stage as FDR, Winston Churchill, and Ronald Reagan, he approaches Margaret Thatcher as a national leader with major international reach.
Mandela invited the warden of Robben Island prison to his inauguration as president of South Africa. He sat him front and center. While most people would be tempted to lock up their jailers if they had the chance, Mandela essentially forgave him while the whole world and his own people, white and black, were watching. This quietly sent South Africa’s white population a message: Calm down. This will be okay. It also signaled black South Africans: Now is no time for vengeance. Let’s show our former oppressors that we are greater than that and bigger people than they were to us.
As Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon beautifully dramatize in the excellent film Invictus, Mandela resisted the ANC’s efforts to strip the national rugby team of its long-standing name, the Springboks. Seen as a symbol of apartheid, Mandela’s black colleagues were eager to give the team a new, less “white” identity. Mandela argued that white South Africans, stripped of political leadership and now quite clearly in the minority, should not be deprived of the one small point of pride behind which they could shield their anxieties.
Mandela then championed the team. He attended its games and rallied both blacks and whites behind it as a national sports organization, rather than an exclusive totem of South Africa’s white minority.
Mandela’s easy manner, warmth, and decency shone through and gave South Africans a common point of unity amid so many opportunities for division.
(As an American, it would be nice right now to have a leader who could bring our nation together, rather than pound one wedge after another into our dispirited population.)
Mandela’s economic record deserves deeper analysis later. However, for now it is worthwhile to remember that he came to power in 1994, less than half a decade after the Iron Curtain collapsed and the triumph of scientific socialism was exposed as a cruel and hollow fantasy. Rather than follow that vanquished model, Mandela looked to economic growth as the path his nation should follow. Among other things, he sold off stakes in South African Airways, utilities, and other state-owned companies. While some wish he had gone further, this was a far cry from the playbook of Marx and Lenin.
So, I was dead wrong about Nelson Mandela, a great man and fine example to others, not least the current occupant of the White House.
After 95 momentous years on Earth, may Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela rest in peace.