Nelson Mandela, architect of post-apartheid South Africa, was the greatest current heir to a rich tradition of statesmanship that builds the political life of nations upon a foundation of moral authority. His passing diminishes it greatly. Aged 95 and with his health deteriorating alarmingly over the past few months, his death is not unexpected. Advancing years and illness had, in fact, caused him to retreat from public life a handful of years ago. But even in absentia, his stature as a symbol of fortitude, dignity and generosity of spirit was undiminished both within the borders of his nation and on the global stage.
His two greatest accomplishments were to see justice as a means to achieving lasting peace, not extracting a price for past sins, and to renounce power when it would have been far too easy for him to choose otherwise. When he emerged from jail in 1990, he had been imprisoned for 27 years. But despite that, in both in the negotiations with FW de Clerk’s government for ending apartheid and in his stint as South Africa’s first black president from 1994 to 1999, he pushed for an inclusive politics.
This is seen nowhere better than in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission established in 1995. There are some who have criticised the commission for not doing enough to redress the wrongs of the past; perpetrators of racial violence could request amnesty if they gave full testimony. But Mandela was faced with a nearly impossible choice at the time. Post-apartheid South Africa was a new, fragile creation. Its white population, in the minority, was already on edge about the possibility of revenge by those they had formerly oppressed. To seek punitive measures and harsh redressal may very well have hardened both camps and doomed the new project from its inception.
His wisdom in surrendering the presidency after just one term cemented the good the commission had done. He had done the hard work of shepherding the country through the difficult post-apartheid period; perhaps the only one who had the stature to do so. The dangers of staying on longer can be seen elsewhere in Africa where post-colonial regimes have made a mockery of democracy when leaders have acquired too much of a taste for power.
Mandela was no saint, of course. He made his mistakes, both personal and political. His self-confidence could translate to autocracy at times, and he showed little appetite for the nitty-gritty of administration during his tenure as president. Questions remain about his co-founding the Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation) in 1961 and its campaign of sabotage. Most damning of the charges laid at his door is that he did not go far enough in ending apartheid. Black South Africans may be politically equal now, but the socio-economic disparities remain massive with the bulk of the wealth concentrated in the hands of a small white elite.
But the occasions when he stumbled throw his achievements into even greater relief. India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru once told British filmmaker Richard Attenborough who wanted to make a movie about another great man who had led his people to freedom, “Whatever you do, do not deify him. That is what we have done in India, and he was too great a man to be deified.” It is a lesson that applies well to Mandela. He made mistakes and had his frailties — and despite them, was able to look past the bitterness of apartheid and forgive not just the wrongs done to him, but those done to his people. It is a human greatness that runs deeper than the infallibility attributed to the bloodless figures history transfigures great men into.