By The Economist
WHO was the greatest of the statesmen of the 20th century? Discard the mass murderers such as Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong; set aside the autocratic nationalists like Gamal Abdel Nasser and the more admirable but probably less influential anti-communists like Vaclav Havel; then winnow the list to half a dozen names.
On it would perhaps be Mohandas Gandhi, Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt, Charles de Gaulle, Jack Kennedy and Nelson Mandela. For many people, in many lands, the most inspirational of these would be the last, who died on December 5th, aged 95.
Mr Mandela’s heroic status is a phenomenon. For years his fame was largely confined to his own country, South Africa. He did not become widely known abroad until his first trial, for high treason, ended in 1961. Though acquitted, he remained free for little more than a year before being convicted on sabotage charges at the Rivonia trial, which began in 1963.
During his long subsequent confinement, more than 17 years of which were spent on Robben Island, a wind-scorched Alcatraz off the Cape coast, little was heard of Mr Mandela and nothing was seen of him. When he emerged from captivity on February 11th 1990, no contemporary photograph of him had been published since 1964; the world had been able only to wonder what he looked like.
He was by then 71 years old, and barely ten years of semi-active politics remained to him. Nonetheless, more than any other single being, he helped during that decade to secure a conciliatory and mostly peaceful end to apartheid, one of the great abominations of the age, and an infinitely more hopeful start to a democratic South Africa than even the most quixotic could have imagined 20 years earlier.
A pattern of paradox
That someone who had been in enforced obscurity for so long could exercise such influence suggests a remarkable personality. Personality alone does not, however, explain the depth of the outpourings of affection he met on his later travels, whether touring Africa, greeting 75,000 fans in a London stadium or sweeping down Broadway in a motorcade festooned by more ticker tape, it was said, than had ever fluttered onto a New York street before.
Mr Mandela was a celebrity, and this is an age that sets a high value on any kind of fame. When every pop star is “awesome”, reality television makes idols out of oafs and “iconic” is so freely applied that it has become meaningless, it would be absurd not to see in the lionisation of Mr Mandela some of the veneration that came to attend Princess Diana: the world needs heroes, or heroines, and will not always choose them wisely. In Mr Mandela, though, the need for a hero was met by the real thing.
Like most great men, even apparently simple ones, Mr Mandela was complex and often contradictory. He had granite determination: without it, he would have left prison years earlier, just by agreeing to renounce violence or make some other concession. Yet he was by nature a compromiser and a conciliator.
In the 1950s he would often argue for restraint against more headstrong colleagues, and throughout most of his life he fought to keep his movement, the African National Congress (ANC), non-racial, though at times he had reservations about Indians and much stronger feelings about whites.
When he came to accept the principle of armed struggle, his strategy was not to seize power by force but rather to make the government negotiate. And when, in turn, the government eventually yielded, Mr Mandela showed neither bitterness nor vindictiveness, but an astonishing capacity for forgiveness and conciliation.
He was a guerrilla, the commander-in-chief of the ANC’s armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe, which, as the “Spear of the Nation”, was supposed—however implausibly—to lead an armed insurgency, organise an invasion by sea and bring the government to its knees. It was this commitment to armed struggle that made Margaret Thatcher shun the ANC and dismiss it as “a typical terrorist organisation”. But that was always too simple a view. Chief Albert Luthuli, the president of the ANC from 1952 to 1967, though not a pacifist, was a staunch believer in non-violent resistance, as at the outset was Mr Mandela.
Mr Mandela changed his mind only reluctantly, insisting at first on sabotage that would involve no casualties (liberation without bloodshed) rather than direct attacks on people. When he did come round to guerrilla warfare, it was partly because he concluded that the government’s increasing repression left no other way to bring about change (“The attacks of the wild beast cannot be averted with only bare hands”), partly because he feared that the ANC would lose out to more militant rivals, notably the exclusively black Pan Africanist Congress.
His views about communism were less evolutionary. In the 1950s he had pictures of Lenin and Stalin on the walls of his home in the Johannesburg township of Orlando. He was influenced by Marx and made common cause with the Communist Party of South Africa; his writings then were full of sub-Marxist drivel. And he continued to the end to hold in deep affection such people as Joe Slovo, the chairman of the party, who was to him “dear comrade, dear brother, dear friend”, but to his opponents the “KGB general”.
Mr Mandela insisted he was not a communist, though. He saw the ANC’s bond with the communists as a link with the only group that would treat Africans as equals and as a natural alliance with his enemies’ enemy. He showed no desire for Soviet models, often speaking admiringly of British institutions, even to the point of calling the British Parliament “the most democratic institution in the world”.
Moreover, he was consistent both in the 1950s, when the ANC was debating its objectives, and 20 years later, when the aims of the “liberation movement” were under discussion, in holding that the movement’s great statement of principles, the Freedom Charter adopted in 1956, was not a commitment to socialism but “a step towards bourgeois democracy”.
A more blatant conflict of principles and practice could be seen at the end of Mr Mandela’s life in his attitude to countries like Cuba, Libya and Syria. For years he had fought to place human rights at the centre of the ANC’s political philosophy, and as president he even sought to define his country’s national interest to include “the happiness of others”.
With characteristic courage, he openly criticised Sani Abacha, a brutal and egregiously corrupt dictator of Nigeria in the 1990s, thus breaking the lamentable code that no African head of government criticises another African head of government. But would he likewise condemn Fidel Castro or Muammar Qaddafi? No. These men had long supported the anti-apartheid cause and, for Mr. Mandela, gratitude to loyal friends trumped all other considerations. The Americans were appalled.
This episode involved a straightforward clash of principles, in which one triumphed: “To change Mandela’s mind about a friend is virtually impossible,” said Ahmed Kathrada, one of the seven others sentenced to life imprisonment with him at the Rivonia trial. Other apparently out-of-character actions were more easily explained by Mr Mandela’s general adaptability, which may have been forced upon him by his separation from his family as a child.
At first he was looked after mainly by his mother and then, after the age of ten, when his father died, by the regent of the Thembu, one of a dozen Xhosa-speaking groups, who accepted him as a ward. If this disturbed upbringing bred a capacity for accommodating to events, it often served him well, but it sometimes made his behaviour hard to predict.
Mr Mandela was, for example, a patrician, almost aloof young man. Some of his colleagues considered him remote, even authoritarian, with a strong sense of proper behaviour. But that did not mean he was conservative or socially stuck in the mud.
It was Mandela who, to the dismay of some of his fellow prisoners, was prepared to regard tolerantly the angry young members of the Black Consciousness Movement when they started arriving on Robben Island in the mid-1970s, preaching a gospel of black exclusiveness. Later, when the townships were in turmoil, he was to be consistently conciliatory towards discontented youth.
Some of his own children might not have agreed, or perhaps they would have said that his efforts to understand other people’s children were an acknowledgment of his failures with his own. For the contradictions and paradoxes in his views and politics were matched in his character, and nowhere was this more evident than in his relations with his family.
His first son, Thembi, had become estranged from his father several years before his death in a car crash in 1969 (a daughter had died at nine months in 1948). Thembi had sided with his mother, Evelyn, when Mr Mandela divorced her in 1958 after a marriage of 14 fairly unhappy years. His brother, Makgatho, failed to live up to his father’s expectations and moved away; he died of AIDS in 2005. Maki, Evelyn’s surviving daughter, remained on better terms but also felt neglected.
Trouble and strife
Matrimony proved just as difficult as fatherhood. At the age of 22 he had run away to Johannesburg to escape a marriage arranged for him by his guardian, the Thembu regent. Three years later, in 1944, he would marry Evelyn, the first cousin of his lifelong friend Walter Sisulu. A nurse, she bore him four children, but was drawn more to religion than politics, and politics was by then his all-absorbing concern.
Winnie, his second wife, whom he married in 1958, came to share his political cause, but from the first realised that “he belongs to them”, the public. This was a complaint of the children too, as Mr Mandela himself confessed. He was, one told him, “a father to all our people, but you have never had time to be a father to me.”
Despite his devotion to the courageous Winnie—in his 1994 autobiography he would publish for the first time some of the poignant letters he had written to her from Robben Island—the second marriage also failed. Winnie suffered almost all the blows that apartheid had in its arsenal: banishment, imprisonment, remorseless harassment.
But suffering did not ennoble her: just the opposite, and in the end she did her utmost to humiliate her husband. He was wounded, but also guilt-ridden, conscious of his failings with his wives and his children. Not until he married a wary Graça Machel, widow of Mozambique’s first president, on his 80th birthday did Mr Mandela find enduring wedded fulfilment.
In love, at least, the private man was the very opposite of the public. Mr Mandela inspired affection among millions he had never met and, among those he had, few failed to remark on his extraordinary ability to empathise and in return command respect. Most striking among these, perhaps, were his political opponents, especially Afrikaners, the descendants mainly of the country’s early Dutch settlers.
One of the first was P.J. Bosch, the prosecutor at his 1962 trial (for leaving the country illegally and incitement to strike), who before his sentencing asked to see him alone, shook his hand and wished him well. That was not exceptional. Throughout his career, he would be sharing his food with his police escort (after arrest in 1962), helping warders with their essays (also 1962), and earning the respect of their Robben Island counterparts by speaking to them in Afrikaans, which he studied assiduously.
Later, summoned from prison to take tea with President P. W. Botha, he would show that he could charm even one whose defence of white supremacy had earned him the name of “the crocodile”. And then, when he was at last released, came the grand gestures of reconciliation: the honouring of the Boer-war guerrilla, Daniel Theron, as an Afrikaner freedom-fighter; the donning of a Springbok rugby shirt, hitherto a symbol to blacks chiefly of white nationalism; and the visit to Betsie Verwoerd, widow of Hendrik, the uncompromising architect of apartheid.
Some manifestations of empathy were harder for him to make. When he came out of jail the subject of sex was awkward for him. Whether that was because he had been behind bars for most of the 1960s sexual revolution, or because the many years of isolation had made him unused to female company, or because some element of reserve had remained in his character since childhood, is not clear.
But he plainly found it difficult to overcome, most seriously, by his own admission, in his reluctance as president to take up the issue of AIDS. Eventually, he did so, however, openly siding in 2002 with the campaigners who were fighting for wider provision of drugs in the face of President Thabo Mbeki’s cranky resistance. A lesser man might have chosen to stay silent.
Modesty, humility, vanity
Mr Mandela startled ANC colleagues when, at 33, he announced that he looked forward to becoming South Africa’s first black president. Yet he did not expect rewards; even when he was a figure of world renown he was modest, and seldom took his authority for granted.
Time and again in jail he would refuse privileges if they were offered to him but not to other prisoners. He complained, for instance, about having to wear shorts, one of the ways in which the government humiliated and emasculated black prisoners, but rejected the long trousers he was then given—until two years later when the authorities agreed to let his colleagues wear them too.
He was proud, it is true, to be a member of a royal family, as a descendant of Ngubengcuka, one of the Thembu kings from whom he took the traditional name, Madiba. Yet he disdained to behave like some African “big men”, always being embarrassed on Robben Island that he received more visits than other prisoners, one of whom saw only three visitors in 15 years.
As a free man in the 1990s, he chose to live in suburban comfort rather than palatial luxury in Johannesburg, and in the holidays returned to Qunu, where he had spent the happiest days of his childhood, to build a house based on the design of his quarters in the Victor Verster prison that had held him during his final years of captivity. He encouraged no cult of personality. Grandiose museums, reverential monuments and statues were alien to him.
But flash suits, white silk scarves and a physical-fitness regimen at least partly designed to maintain a boxer’s muscular physique were not. He was no stranger to vanity, and would make good use of his appearance. In his youth, his looks and smart suits had done him no harm among female admirers.
He was then considered more at ease with women than with men. Later, when he donned a kaross, a traditional Xhosa leopard-skin cloak, to appear in court, he knew it would “emphasise the symbolism that I was a black African walking into a white man’s court.” This proved electrifying.
It suited the ANC to make a messiah, and if necessary a myth, out of Mr Mandela, first to galvanise the masses at home, then to keep spirits up during the long years of repression, military impotence and political hopelessness. It could have ended badly. The mythic figure whose defiance so captured the public imagination—Prisoner 466/64 on Robben Island—could have turned out to be a broken man or a paper hero. Instead, he proved to be a remarkably effective politician.
Mr Mandela made political mistakes. The decision to abandon non-violence lost the ANC some support abroad, put no real military pressure on the government and, most seriously, diverted the movement’s energies from the task of organisation at home, which was essential if strikes, boycotts and civil disobedience were to be effective. Mr Mandela, who had set so much store by strengthening the ANC, a small and weak organisation when he joined it, might have foreseen that.
But without him the transition to majority rule would almost certainly have been a bloody shambles. First, he decided in 1985 to ask for a meeting with the minister of justice, Kobie Coetsee, who had become interested in his case. Mr Mandela did this without telling his colleagues, let alone seeking their approval, since he knew it would not have been given.
But, as he later explained, “There are times when a leader must move ahead of his flock.” He then played a vital role in ensuring compromise during the negotiations that preceded the constitutional settlement of 1993-94 and the election that followed.
He alone could sway opinion for or against the acceptance of agreements, which was crucial in the case of the constitution, greeted by many ANC supporters with disappointment. He alone could assuage the fury of the crowds after Chris Hani, a popular ANC hero, was murdered by a right-wing Afrikaner.
He was also central in securing the support of General Constand Viljoen and thus the Afrikaner far right. Later he was equally influential in the creation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, when a different man who had been through the same experiences might have been calling for war-crimes tribunals.
In place of retribution
Mr. Mandela did not single-handedly end apartheid. The collapse of communism, yoked to African nationalism by white opponents, played a part; so did international sanctions, domestic economic pressures, non-ANC internal resistance and the person of F.W. de Klerk, president from 1989 to 1994, whom Mr. Mandela did not treat altogether well. But Mr Mandela’s symbolic role was hard to exaggerate.
His greater achievement, though, was to see the need for reconciliation, to forswear retribution and then to act as midwife to a new, democratic South Africa built on the rule of law. This was something only he could do.
He gave hope to millions of Africans and inspired millions of others elsewhere, but if his successors in government have been less admirable, and if his example has not been followed in countries like Zimbabwe, that should not be surprising. Heroic though he was, he did not have the messianic powers some attributed to him, nor could others be expected to match his capacity to hold high principles, to live by them and to use his moral stature to such effect.
Circumstances, after all, could hardly suit everyone so well. Hard though much of his life had been, Mr. Mandela lived long enough to see his work through. That gave him his great achievement, and the story of his long walk to freedom a happy ending. And the modern world loves a happy hero even more than a tragic one.