Posted: 13 Dec 2013 @ 00:20
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
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
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.