Leaning From History or Revising It?

Reading about Nelson Mandela’s career, as we mourn his death, we might never know that he had been branded a “terrorist” by our government, joined the Communist party at one point, or had been vehemently opposed by American conservatives such as Dick Chaney, George Will and William Buckley who fought efforts to support his anti-Apartheid campaign.

Such awkward facts have been air-brushed out of the American press coverage. As a result, we have a “hero.” But we are in danger of losing the man, a remarkable and complex man, who tenaciously struggled to free his people against great odds and without much support from the rest of the world – and who succeeded.

Bill Keller in The New York Times did call attention to the fact that he probably was a member of a communist party for a while. He does not hold that against Mandela, noting that his alliance with the communists says “less about his ideology than about his pragmatism. He was at various times a black nationalist and a nonracialist, an opponent of armed struggle and an advocate of violence, a hothead and the calmest man in the room, a consumer of Marxist tracts and an admirer of Western democracy, a close partner of Communists and, in his presidency, a close partner of South Africa’s powerful capitalists.” (See, “Nelson Mandela, Communist.”)

Keller’s glib, symmetrical prose emphasizes the vital point that Mandela was committed to his goal, above all else, and willing to change tactics and forge alliances to get there – though he is troubled by the communist connection and worried about its impact.

Al Jazeera gives the most convincing account of his achievement. The Arabic news service quoted David James Smith, author of Young Mandela: “He was very much inspired by the revolution in Cuba . . . with a view to using that as a model for revolutionary activity in South Africa.” (See, Mandela’s radicalism often ignored by Western admirers.”)

Al Jazeera went on to quote Stephen Ellis, a professor of African history in the Netherlands, author of the most exhaustively researched study of Mandela’s career: “First and foremost he was a black African, and that was where his heart and his politics lay.”

Ellis notes that Mandela supported Gaddafi and Yasser Arafat and vehemently opposed western efforts to “liberate” Iraq. That makes perfect sense, given his experience of struggle against western colonial powers who were, to put it mildly, slow to embrace his cause “He stood for very firm anti-racist, anti-imperialist, anti-colonialist values . . . but ideologically he would always be first with Castro and independence leaders in Africa.”

“In 2003 he lambasted the United States and the United Kingdom for ‘attempting to police the world’ over their military intervention in Kosovo in 1999 and the invasion of Iraq.”

When I first thought of writing this post, my idea was to call it: “Mandela: Hero, Terrorist, or Fallible Human Being.” But I came to think that would have been redundant. To be a human being is to be imperfect, hopefully willing to suffer and to learn. The truth is that he was all of those things at various times – and more.

To recognize that variety and flexibility, in the service of his steadfast goal, might be the best tribute we could offer.