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Leader comment >

Mandela’s example

IT WAS natural that world heads of state wished to pay their last respects to Nelson Mandela at his memorial event this week. Most of them will recall the sense of hopelessness that surrounded South African politics in what all knew to be the last days of the apartheid era. Few outside observers could see any way forward that did not involve serious and bloody violence, as the white supremacists were forced to cede power to an angry black majority. One man above all others rewrote the country's future. Mr Mandela was able to draw on his long practice on Robben Island when he resisted the two extremes of acquiescence and retribution, turning his incarceration into a bargaining tool with the government under Presidents Pik Botha and F. W. de Klerk.

A number of tributes have spoken of his Christ-like behaviour. There are two strands to this: the thicker, and more visible, was his renunciation of violence and his determination to reconcile all in his country, even those who had oppressed him and his fellow black South Africans. Woven around this was his personal charm and affability, as he treated all who came within his orbit as if they were members of his family: addressing the Queen as "Elizabeth", telephoning foreign heads of state when they were experiencing domestic problems, dropping in on political opponents in hospital.

His story is a case study in how well such qualities survive exposure to the political world. The answer is, indifferently. The governing of a country, which he did for one term as president from 1994 to 1999, was a tremendous challenge to his personal optimism. He managed to retain this quality, and used it to further the country's unity and its reputation overseas, but his attention to political detail was scant. He left most of the graft of governing to his Vice-President and later successor, Thabo Mbeki, a more cynical political operator. A seminal moment was their dispute over the publication of the Truth and Reconciliation report, which contained criticism of the ANC camps. Mr Mandela overruled Mr Mbeki, and the report was published. But lesser tussles went the other way. The development of factionalism and corruption required the attention of more than one man, however superhuman he appeared at times, and certainly someone younger and undamaged by years of hard labour.

The father of a nation, just as a real father, must allow his children to grow into maturity, learning from their own mistakes, despite a natural desire to steer them away from the worst consequences of their actions. Mr Mandela was exceptional in the way his political vision developed from its earlier extremism, but many of his ANC colleagues were deprived by the apartheid regime of any opportunity to follow suit, to the detriment of the people that they are now governing. Christ had his disciples. Mr Mandela was not so fortunate; but he made up for this, at least in part, by his ability to recruit the unlikeliest allies to his cause. It is natural for the mourning in South Africa to include an element of apprehension, now that this charisma is finally extinguished.

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