Believe it or not, there are those who think that our admiration of the late Nelson Mandela is a con job. That’s right — our praise for a man whose nimble mind and great soul changed the course of history, whose capacity for forgiveness and reconciliation inspires hope and awe is little more than sentimental nonsense, a capitalist deification of one man excised from his political context as the armed freedom fighter of his youth. Now there’s always the risk that a great person — especially one with such a powerful history — will be elevated into sainthood and turned into a harmless icon. For sure he’d be ill-represented in our memories as a mellow old man unplugged from the passionate fighter of old. Yet at the same time, I find this line of criticism irksome. It has its own agenda, its own way of obscuring the truth.
Since Mandela’s death last week, a number of articles and interviews have reminded us of his early years of the anti-apartheid movement. For starters, there are two excellent and nuanced reflections on Mandela’s political life — Stephanie Nolen in The Globe and Mail and Bill Keller in The New York Times. Both examine this humane and complex man, a remarkable soul, but no Saint Francis. An an astute political figure, he was for a time a communist, a man who in his youth engaged in armed struggle, forging a perspective over the years of long imprisonment that drew from Marxism, African nationalism, democratic socialism and Christian belief. Out of what must have been a remarkable and disciplined mode of reflection, he somehow found his way to forgiveness and reconciliation — which Nolen views as both a moral and a practical stance that allowed for a co-operative transition.
Then there’s CBC Radio’s Jian Ghomeshi and his interview with Cornel West, a professor at Union Theological Seminary, a man with an edge who ranted about Mandela being “Santa-Clausified” into a nice old brother who never countenanced the use of force or revolution. Forgiveness? Reconciliation? Bunk, said the tone of these remarks. There’s a real Mandela and a fake, media-constructed Mandela. The real one was angry and held a rifle in his hand. Judging from the tone of this man’s voice, there could be no amalgam of the two, no evolution.
The same tone emerges in numerous shares on Facebook and unsolicited email, all with titles such as “five (or ten, or twelve) things Mandela said that they (all italics mine) — or the corporate entities don’t want you to know.” Almost all of these pertained to positive views that he held about contentious leaders (Castro, Gaddafi), the Palestinian cause, and anger at the United States (comments excised from Mandela’s criticism of the war in Iraq). So the elderly peacemaker had controversial opinions. Any sentient human being has at least one. And who are “they?” Paranoia is not a fitting memorial to this great man.
I’m quite prepared to accept the fact that Mandela was once a communist and what we might call a terrorist, trying to do battle in a desperate situation. Yet had he done nothing more than brandish a gun, he would have died forgotten. Instead, in the course of a very long life, he abandoned violence and formed himself into a man who suffered, acted, reflected, and forgave. This is why he is so beloved. He showed us what humanity is capable of doing. He gives us hope that one day, other troubled places — Palestine, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Egypt — might bring forth their own Mandelas.
The folks who romanticize Mandela’s youth forget that violence only breeds more of the same.
At some point, Mandela realized this. His change of heart will be his legacy.