Speaking strictly as a cartoonist, one of the things that always stood out to me about Nelson Mandela was his wonderfully warm, happy face. Though craggy, freckled, and lined, his was a face with a truly beautiful smile, the rare sort of face, in fact, that seems naturally predisposed to smiling. Even when I was a small kid, and obviously didn’t grasp the political and historic importance of the man, I remember understanding, simply from looking at him, that this was one of the good guys. It made sense that he was so beloved, for he looked like the kind of man who loved others.
We don’t choose our faces, of course, but they are shaped by our experiences and character. In this picture on the right, for instance, we see P.W. Botha — South Africa’s last hardline apartheid president — and his wife, Elize. Their faces are grotesque and unloveable, he glowering out suspiciously at the world with his sunken, dark eyes (he was always glowering), she beaming with smug obliviousness. They look like precisely what they were: the tragic, ridiculous rulers of a government whose time was nearly up.
In this era of cynicism, it’s natural to want to believe Nelson Mandela does not deserve all the hype his death is presently receiving. That he was somehow overrated or more wicked than he seemed. And in fairness, the man obviously did have his sins. Mandela stands alone in the company of civil rights activists like Ghandi, MLK and his own compatriot Desmond Tutu in having explicitly endorsed hateful violence as a reasonable means to achieving his ends. It’s now fashionable to dismiss as racist or insane anyone who considered Umkhonto We Sizwe (“Spear of the Nation”) — the armed resistance faction of the African National Congress party Mandela founded and led — a “terrorist” organization, but the group is considered responsible for thousands of civilian deaths, born from hundreds of bomb attacks against, railroads, police stations, court houses, shopping malls, and in one particularly bloody incident, a Pretoria government building. It was also true that the ANC practiced the worst sort of the-enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend opportunism, an attitude that greatly compromised the group’s pro-democracy credentials through alliances with the USSR, Arafat’s PLO, Quadaffi’s Libya, Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, and Castro’s Cuba. Mandela never distanced himself from these regimes even once he became president of a free South Africa — and therefore the original context for the opportunistic allegiances became redundant — a fact which would greatly undermine his credibility in his later years when he tried (in rather shrill and sloppy terms) to denounce the human rights record of the Bush administration.
But to argue, as some on the reactionary side of the right have predictably begun to do, that these flaws somehow represent the essence of Mandela, the “true” Mandela that we’re not supposed to remember or whatever, is to willfully ignore the sheer magnitude of what the man achieved, at both a political and human level, in favor of a petty ideological — and decidedly ahistorical — focus.
In 1962, Mandela was found guilty of two obviously trumped-up charges — inciting workers to strike, and attempting to leave the country without a permit — and sentenced to five years on the former leper colony of Robben Island. Two years later, following a massive government raid on ANC headquarters, his charges were upgraded to subversion and his imprisonment to life. During the trial, he spoke elegantly and forcefully of why he had chosen his path of agitation, and clarified that whatever controversial tactics and alliances his group pursued along the way, his end goal remained a functional South African democracy, free from both “white domination” and “black domination,” governed only by “racial harmony and freedom for all.” For more than a quarter-century, those words, his last words as a free man, inspired the world with the promise that South Africa didn’t have to be what it was — a racist, paranoid global pariah — and did indeed possess a principled class of moderate, educated black democrats ready to govern — and not merely a clique of genocidal Communist dictators-in-waiting, as opponents constantly claimed.
In 1990, when Mandela was finally released by the brave, reformist government of President F.W. de Klerk, he immediately emerged as the consensus leader of all future black aspirations. In many ways his political career had benefitted from his imprisonment — his public absence for 27 long years had not only allowed his popular image to stay frozen in the form of the eloquent courtroom orator, but had also left him relatively untainted by the worst of the ANC’s excesses, which, though he refused to denounce, were quite obviously committed on orders other than his own. With President de Klerk, he negotiated the end of apartheid, the end of armed struggle, the end of international sanctions, and the terms of building a new nation; a nation stripped of special privileges for its white minority, but also not hostile towards it — in other words, Mandela’s original promise of a democracy free of both black and white domination made real.
After the ANC secured a decisive parliamentary majority in South Africa’s first post-racial elections of 1994, and Mandela was appointed president, the new leader made the consolidation of that vision the purpose of his mandate. He cobbled together a racially diverse cabinet (including de Klerk and several old regime hardliners), allowed white bureaucrats, judges, and generals to keep their posts while instituting aggressive affirmative action programs to pick their eventual replacements. Though discrimination was now outlawed, Mandela insisted he had no interest in seeking retroactive punishment against those who had practiced it for so long. Instead, a “Truth and Reconciliation” commission was set up, in which thousands of victims and perpetrators alike would testify to the crimes of apartheid for the sake of the historic record, but no charges would be formally laid.
Economically, the president sharply rebuffed his former Marxist allies who had hoped majority rule would bring with it massive nationalization of industry and an aggressive socialist redistribution of wealth, and instead pursued a broadly free-market agenda, which, coupled with a post-sanctions spike in international investment, led to steady GDP growth that helped finance a generous, color-blind welfare state. In 1997 he helped steer the creation of an inspiring new constitution, which not only contained some of the world’s clearest and most forceful declarations of human rights (including the first-ever explicit promise by any state to forbid discrimination on the basis of “sexual orientation”), but also outlined an ingenious new form of government that deftly combined the best elements of British-style parliamentarism with American-style presidential checks and balances.
Perhaps most importantly of all, in 1999, when Mandela’s five-year term ended, he announced he would not be seeking another. In that sense, it’s absolutely right to compare him to George Washington, since both men well understood the importance of establishing the democratic precedent that no ruler, no matter how popular, should regard national leadership as anything but a temporary responsibility. In the context of Africa, in which thirty-year presidencies are not at all uncommon, it was a lesson particularly overdue.
Was Mandela perfect? Obviously not, but awareness of his flaws should only highlight the contrasting enormity of his successes. Rare are the men in history whose natural gifts made them so tremendously well-suited for the precise moment in which they were summoned to serve, and all of us, even those thousands of miles away from South Africa — emotionally as well as geographically — are fortunate to have witnessed such a figure in our own lifetimes.
It will be long before we see another.