The reactions to Mandela’s passing are generally what one might expect, and, as laudatory as they are, also generally deserved. But two corners are not covering themselves with glory: The first, from the right, being those who denounce him as a Communist (he was) and a friend of tyrants (most definitely) and a terrorist (debatable) and having left a legacy of ruin (not really), and therefore not worthy of the praise given him. The second, from the left, is having a marvelous time dredging up every skeptic of Mandela and his ANC prior to 1990, and getting in one last kick against those who failed to join the liberal consensus at the proper time.
Well. Historical memory is malleable and imperfect. The truth about Nelson Mandela is that one may bring the full bill of charges against him and still find a great man: and that bill exists. The implacable critics on the right, and the post-facto triumphalists on the left, both forget Burke’s admonition:
“I cannot stand forward, and give praise or blame to anything which relates to human actions, and human concerns, on a simple view of the object, as it stands stripped of every relation, in all the nakedness and solitude of metaphysical abstraction. Circumstances (which with some gentlemen pass for nothing) give in reality to every political principle its distinguishing colour and discriminating effect. The circumstances are what render every civil and political scheme beneficial or noxious to mankind.”
Those who believe Mandela was obviously a reconciliation-minded hero before 1990 willfully ignore the circumstances of nearly every one of his political type before him, from Mugabe to Nkrumah to Nasser to Indira Gandhi and much beyond. The list of left-wing figures who appealed to liberal principles while out of power, and then governed as bloody-minded authoritarians when in it, is long. In fact, it’s most of them. Caution that Mandela would prove yet another of their number, when his background was so drearily common in their ranks, was simply prediction born of empiricism.
Those who believe that Mandela was obviously at bottom a terrorist and Marxist both in and out of power willfully ignore the circumstances of what he actually did when his entire nation — including all his enemies — lay within his grasp. It’s a long list, but let me cite three illustrative things. First, he invited his Robben Island jailers to his inauguration, and even later intervened to see that one of them received a promised civil-service promotion. Second, he wore the Springboks jersey: if you don’t know the story, look it up. Third, and most important, he retired after a single term in office.
It’s the first two that set him apart as a good man. It’s that last, George Washington-style deliberate setting of precedent with the shedding of supreme power — and make no mistake, he could have died as a sitting president had he wished — that sets him apart as a great man. Acquisition of power is common. Exercise of power is too common. Restraint and refusal to use power is uncommon. Relinquishing power entirely, under no compulsion or stricture, is extraordinary. That alone, even in the absence of all else, makes a life worth celebrating — and remembering.