Who could have predicted this day a generation ago? Back then, Nelson Mandela was a “terrorist.” No, not just in South Africa – in the eyes of the American government. Today, of course, no American politician has anything but good to say of “Tata.” By all accounts, he was a saint.
His sanctity is proclaimed on front pages throughout the world (photo above), by TV and radio, on the Internet…
Too bad he’s not here to have a good laugh. From all accounts, the father of South Africa had a keen sense of irony. He was also deeply aware of his humanity… of the vagaries of political fortune… of the public’s fickle nature.
Perhaps the best way to think of Tata now that he is gone, is as a man. Not just any man of course. As Shakespeare’s Hamlet said of his late father, “he was a man, take him for all in all, I shall not look upon his like again.”
While the white South Africans were in power, many American politicians – especially Republicans of course -were in their corner, and the US branded Mandela a terrorist. Ronald Reagan even vetoed a bipartisan bill to impose sanctions on the racist regime.
Now that Mandela is dead, the American right is unashamedly embracing him as an icon.
So who was the real Mandela? How will history describe him?
I think the truth is that Nelson Mandela did what he had to do to achieve the greatest good for his people (as he perceived it).
In the process, he exhibited amazing patience, perseverance, dignity and compassion – yes, compassion. For while the ANC was guilty of acts that could be categorized as “terrorist,” when Mandela rose to power, he established a remarkable mechanism to offer amnesty to those who confessed their sins against the state and asked for forgiveness.
Whatever the ANC might have done to get him there, Mandela as the country’s head of state was a wise and gentle father to all South Africans, not the rabid revenge seeker he had every right to be.
For, make no mistake, the white South African regime was ferocious and brutal, imposing the most degrading and humiliating conditions on non-whites and slaughtering protesters – including women and children – without mercy.
The atrocities committed by the regime sparked worldwide outrage, triggering widespread commercial and financial boycotts as well as an outpouring of support from celebrities and politicians. It was this tidal ave of protest that forced South Africa to end Apartheid and accept democracy. But it was Nelson Mandela’s character and intellect that made the transition work.
This majestic yet humble man would be the first to laugh off any suggestion of saintliness. He had quite a temper for one thing.
I wonder how he would like to be remembered? From all accounts, he was regal yet charming and approachable, taking time to hold children on his knee and welcome well-wishers into his home. His photos show a smile that is full of love.
Perhaps the best way to honor Manela’s memory is not with epic accounts of political battles fought and won or international honors (the Nobel Peace Prize for example) bestowed on him but with another quotation from Shakespeare’s masterpiece:
Good night, sweet prince, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.
Click for Joan Walsh’s take on the topic.