Nelson Mandela was born into the Thembu faction of the Xhosa, the tribal equivalent of the royal family, which enabled him to receive a good education, although he was suspended from school for boycotting the food and became a lawyer only after failing three times to complete his law course at Witwatersrand. (He was the only black student, and may have been the victim of discrimination.) His noble lineage and upbringing conferred on him a stature and bearing and dignity that he never lost and that commanded the respect of all throughout his adult life.
Though the tremendous outpouring of admiration that has followed his death is certainly merited — for his generosity of spirit and immense courage throughout his imprisonment of 27 years, most of it in severe conditions — the great esteem in which he is held obscures and transcends some matters of legitimate controversy.
There is no doubt that, although Mandela was brought up a Methodist and was a somewhat enthusiastic Christian for a time (a Bible teacher, in fact), and that he and his image-makers have soft-pedaled his dalliance with the Communists, he certainly was one for many years.
He moved to expel Communists from the African National Congress in 1947, but when he joined the executive of the ANC in 1950, aged 32, he was soon cock-a-hoop for Marx and Engels, which is comprehensible for a black South African intellectual settling into the enchantments of apartheid; but his enthusiasm for Lenin, Mao Tse-tung, and especially Stalin is a little harder to understand. His enthusiasm for Mao probably cooled a little when the People’s Republic of China declined his request for arms in the mid Fifties, because it judged the ANC too “immature” to be trusted with real weapons.
He led the pro-violence faction of the ANC at the start of the Sixties, contrary to the wishes of the ANC leader, Albert Luthuli; in 1961, he founded the sabotage and murder arm of the movement, called Spear of the Nation. (It was rarely effective, was frequently infiltrated by the white government’s agents, and was routed by the fierce Zulus every time they clashed, which was countless times over the next 35 years.)
It seems that the collapse of the Soviet Union and of international Communism, just as Mandela was released from prison in 1990, helped him to consider alternatives to Communism, as did the antics of his wife, Winnie, whom he married in 1958, after his adultery broke up his first marriage and his wife decamped, taking the children and becoming a zealous Jehovah’s Witness. Adultery played a part in the problems of his marriage to Winnie also, but that must be fairly seen in the context of a society that was traditionally not monogamous, and also in the light of some of the derring-do of the Mandela United Football Club that Winnie, who was well to the left of her husband, led. It routinely tortured and killed people, sometimes with a device it invented: the necklace, a burning tire hung around the neck of the offender. It does not lie in the mouth of anyone who was not the victim of the evil and repulsive racist regime that oppressed the black majority of South Africa to criticize Nelson Mandela for being tempted by Communism, but there was a tactical aspect to his handling of the subject. He generally denied his association, and in his famous four-hour speech of 1964 at one of his many treason trials — a speech that was based on Fidel Castro’s speech “History Will Forgive Me” — he denied that he was a Communist, and said that he had relations with Communists only because theirs were the countries that chiefly assisted racial-equality and anti-colonial movements. He concluded by saying that he was “prepared to die,” and he doubtless was prepared to die, and generally did give his life, for the cause of racial equality. This is the basis of his greatness and his high place in world esteem.
He was sometimes acquitted in these trials, revealing that South Africa, like Gandhi’s colonial India and Martin Luther King’s southern states, could never really resort to massive repression without regard to human life, as the culture of the ruling minority, as Gandhi and King perceived, could not bear the moral implications of maximum violence (unlike totalitarian oppressors such as Hitler and Stalin). Of course the Boers, whose ancestors had trekked hundreds of miles to the north just to get out of so subversively liberal a place as the British Empire after it had abolished slavery, were much more attached to their position in South Africa than the comparative handful of British were to their status in India, or the relatively unthreatened white majority in the southern U.S. states were to segregation. Nonetheless, the Anglo-Afrikaner ruling establishment was not prepared to dispense altogether with the prestigious pretense to due process.
It was after his 1961 acquittal that Mandela set up the cell structure of the ANC, prepared for guerrilla war (at which it had little aptitude), and toured Africa, visiting Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, Egypt’s Nasser, Tunisia’s Bourguiba, and Guinea’s neo-Communist Sékou Touré. He attended a guerrilla-war camp in Ethiopia, although he lasted only two months of a six-month course.
It was during his decades serving a life sentence, with patient, Gandhi-like endurance (though in far more severe circumstances than Gandhi ever faced), that Nelson Mandela earned the immense admiration that has poured forth on his death. In an atmosphere in which there must have been little hope, and in which his oppressors (who had operated a racist despotism for 350 years) must have seemed impregnable, he must have often had dark nights of despair. By 1985, world agitation for his release and the increasing tenuousness of the white-supremacist regime must have uplifted him; in 1985, after he had spent 23 years in Spartan and unhealthy confinement, the president of the country offered him a release to freedom in exchange for an unconditional renunciation of violence, and he declined, saying it was impossible to contract anything from a prison cell. In the Seventies and Eighties he corresponded with the Anglican religious leader Desmond Tutu and with the leader of the Zulus, Mangosuthu Buthelezi. Both of them staunchly supported Mandela, Buthelezi declining autonomy for the Zulus while Mandela was confined.
This raises another question: Mandela’s inability, once he was free, the president of the ANC, and the most powerful man in South Africa, to restrain the ANC from conducting a civil war against Buthelezi’s Inkatha Freedom party and its large number of tribal warriors. The Zulus won these encounters, as their ferocity is legendary (and contributed to bringing down the great government of Benjamin Disraeli by their prowess at Isandlwana in 1879). Why did Mandela, who had the authority to stop the violence, not do so? Following independence, Buthelezi, who was narrowly persuaded to participate in the country’s first free elections in 1994, rather than proclaim Zululand’s independence and enforce it, governed Natal and was minister of home affairs in the Mandela government. A little more forcefulness from Mandela, who certainly possessed heroic leadership qualities, and much tribal violence and tension could have been avoided.
When Mandela finally was released in 1990, he declared that he was conducting “a purely defensive armed struggle.” The white leadership had bungled away any bargaining power: If they had loosened things up years before, granted local autonomy to Zulus, Cape Coloureds, East Indians, and others, and produced a federal structure with more entrenchment of minority rights, and not sent decent people like Mandela and most of his colleagues off to prison or exile for decades, they would not have lost their entire position in South Africa and the 750,000 whites who departed the country in the balance of the Nineties. Mandela did well to placate the factions of his riven country, going to the victory of the white rugby team and setting up his Truth and Reconciliation Commission under Tutu, which ascertained the facts by granting immunity, but did not wreak vengeance. He took over a country of 40 million, where 23 million did not have electricity, a third were illiterate, a third unemployed, and 12 million did not have clean water. Under Mandela, the ANC did provide new housing for 3 million, telephones for 3 million, electricity for 2 million, and education for 1.5 million more children, and better health care for all children. Once in power, he dropped his decades-long enthusiasm for wholesale economic nationalization but proved, like Lech Walesa in Poland, to be a better moral than practical leader.
Ten percent of the population were HIV-positive at the end of his term, because, as he admitted, the government simply ignored the issue. Corruption quickly achieved stupefying proportions. A Japanese company rented the management of the South African Power Company (some years after Mandela’s retirement, but the rot started with him) and sealed the deal with a publicly revealed outright bribe of $1 billion to the ANC. The former ANC deputy chairman and head of the Mineworkers’ Union, Cyril Ramaphosa, quickly became a multi-centi-millionaire essentially on a straight payment of Danegeld from the Oppenheimer interests (after which there was no more talk of nationalizing anything) and the exploitation of his official position. Mandela hobnobbed with the world’s most disreputable leaders, such as Qaddafi, Castro, and Arafat, condemned Israel in disconcertingly harsh terms, and accused the United States of “unspeakable atrocities.” He did finally break with Robert Mugabe, over that leader’s ghastly Zimbabwean despotism. He was always very courteous and distinguished and possessed great natural moral dignity, but what he actually said and did after he was elected president was, on balance, slightly disappointing.
But these are cavils; he was and will always remain, in his qualities of patience and tolerance, an inspiration, and though he lived to be 95, the broad African landscape yields no visible emulators of remotely comparable stature.
— Conrad Black is the author of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom, Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full, A Matter of Principle, and the recently published Flight of the Eagle: The Grand Strategies That Brought America from Colonial Dependence to World Leadership. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.