Among world leaders, Nelson Mandela had unmatched moral authority. When George W. Bush awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2002, he said, “It is this moral stature that has made Nelson Mandela perhaps the most revered statesman of our time.” Bush could have done without the hedge word “perhaps.” Mandela was by far the most revered statesman of our time. Every July 18th is Nelson Mandela Day. The United Nations declared it so, in 2009. Mandela was born on July 18, 1918. Yesterday, the great man died at 95.
The reverence the world feels for him has to do, in part, with the nature of his adversary: the white, racist apartheid government of South Africa. A Havel or a Sharansky could not achieve equivalent stature: Hatred of their adversaries is far less universal. White racism is held to be probably the greatest evil of our time, and Mandela was a lion against it.
He joined the African National Congress in 1944, when he was 26. In 1960 came the Sharpeville massacre, and the ANC was banned. It went violent and underground. Mandela was a founder of Umkhonto we Sizwe, or Spear of the Nation: the ANC’s military wing. He went to Ethiopia and Algeria to be trained in the guerrilla arts. He returned to South Africa to apply them.
He was arrested on August 5, 1962, and narrowly escaped the death penalty. He was sentenced to life in prison. He would spend 27 years there.
Because he advocated the armed struggle, he could not be counted a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International. He was not imprisoned for what he thought but for what he was doing. Amnesty International found ways to support him nonetheless, and so did most of the world. In 1976, the apartheid government offered to release him, on the condition that he go to a Bantustan (to Transkei, specifically). He refused. In 1985, the government again offered to release him, on the condition that he renounce violence. He refused. The president, P. W. Botha, began to negotiate with him anyway.
In 1990, the government of F. W. de Klerk released him — though Mandela still advocated the armed struggle (“We have no option but to continue”). Over years of painstaking negotiation, he and de Klerk worked out a transition to full, multiracial democracy. They jointly won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993. In Oslo, Mandela famously declared, “Let a new age dawn!”
It did, and Mandela’s inauguration on May 10, 1994, was one of the great political occasions of the age. Some 45 heads of state attended. Then Mandela rendered his greatest service: his presidency. This was a presidency of truth and reconciliation. South Africa could have gone the way of Zimbabwe, with the attendant thuggery, murder, and tyranny. Many feared it would, and not unreasonably. Instead, South Africa took a democratic path, however stony. And that was largely thanks to Nelson Mandela, who set a shining example.
Is there more to Mandela than his democratic greatness? Sadly, yes. During his long imprisonment, he was supported by some of the worst actors in the world: the Soviets, Qaddafi, Castro, Arafat, and so on. They supported him not because they were kindhearted gents but because they were warring against the “West,” of which the apartheid government was considered a part. It was only natural for Mandela to appreciate support wherever it came from. But it should also have been natural, especially after his release, to recognize that his supporters had their own political prisoners. And these prisoners were kept in infinitely worse conditions than his.
He chose not to use his moral authority in behalf of these prisoners. That was one thing. But he did not remain silent: He used his moral authority to buttress the prisoners’ jailers and torturers. He praised Qaddafi’s “commitment to the fight for peace and human rights in the world.” (One of Mandela’s grandsons, incidentally, was named for Qaddafi.) Of Fidel Castro’s Cuba, he said, “There’s one thing where that country stands out head and shoulders above the rest. That is in its love for human rights and liberty.”
Just think what a word from Mandela would have done for Qaddafi’s prisoners, for example. In point of fact, he did care about the plight of one Libyan prisoner. That was Abdelbaset Megrahi, the state agent convicted in the Lockerbie bombing (which killed 270 innocents). Jay Nordlinger tells the story in Peace, They Say, a history of the Nobel Peace Prize:
In 2002, Mandela visited Megrahi in his prison cell at Glasgow. He pleaded for better conditions for this prisoner. “He says he is being treated well by the officials, but when he takes exercise he has been harassed by a number of prisoners. He cannot identify them because they shout at him from their cells through the windows and sometimes it is difficult even for the officials to know from which quarter the shouting occurs.”
During this same period, Qaddafi and Libya were imprisoning five Bulgarian nurses and one Palestinian doctor, whom they had falsely accused of infecting children with AIDS. The prisoners were not shouted at through windows: They were tortured beyond human description, with rape, dogs, electricity, and so on. One of the nurses, in her desperation, tried to kill herself by chewing the veins in her wrist. She had no other recourse.
Mandela’s moral sense could be horribly askew. In 2003, he opposed the Iraq War, as a great many all over the world did. But Mandela opposed it with a peculiar venom. Two months before the war began, he said, “What I am condemning is that one power, with a president who has no foresight, who cannot think properly, is now wanting to plunge the world into a holocaust.” He could not see any moral value in the removal of Saddam Hussein from power. “If there is a country that has committed unspeakable atrocities in the world, it is the United States of America.”
Nelson Mandela, like many another great man, had blind spots and other defects. His selectivity where human rights were concerned was hard to fathom. But he certainly knew that apartheid was wrong. And the good he did, especially as president of the new South Africa, was enormous. The continent of Africa could do with more such leaders, and so could the world at large. His Nobel Peace Prize is richly deserved, and so is the gratitude of his country.