Friday, December 06, 2013

Dignity and Forbearance

You would have to be isolated from the news not to know that Nelson Mandela has died. I don't have a huge amount to add to the lauds, although I think a great many of them are secretly self-congratulatory; one of the things Mandela did very well as a politician was finding ways to let people think they had actually contributed something significant, and those of outside of South Africa have often been all too eager to jump at the idea that it was partly their doing. (I'm not an expert on the matter, by any means, but I am greatly inclined to think that, whatever Western support may have done, the crumbling of the Soviet Union and its client states did far more to tip the balance.)

It does show that in judging historical figures we have to take context and circumstance into account; people forget that Mandela was in prison for being the co-founder and head of a political organization, Umkhonto we Sizwe, inspired by Cuban guerilla warfare and actively engaged in political violence. One could well imagine a historian far in the future, or, for that matter, a random guy on the internet tomorrow, trying to correct the 'myth' of Mandela by pointing out his involvement in such things. But it's easy to see that this would miss an extraordinary amount that needs to be taken into account: Apartheid itself, the fact that Mandela's own involvement in political violence seems to have been quite reluctant, the fact that, while theoretically committed to whatever violence would work and preparing for outright warfare if necessary, in part through Mandela's influence the MK actually focused on sabotage and made considerable efforts to limit deaths; the long endurance in prison for it; more importantly, emergence from prison a leader of extraordinary clarity and power; perhaps as importantly, his patient and careful handling of a transition that could easily have resulted in civil war and his honest willingness to hand over power for the good of everyone rather than, as so many would-be liberators have, holding on to power at any cost. And when it's all taken into account, the man was no more flawed than any other true hero; and heroic he genuinely was.

The New York Times obituary is quite good, conveying a great deal of what was admirable about the man, and his ability to build a genuine moral authority, without shirking the fact that he made many errors, some of them morally serious, both before and after his imprisonment. Some tidbits:

Nelson Mandela, who led the emancipation of South Africa from white minority rule and served as his country’s first black president, becoming an international emblem of dignity and forbearance, died Thursday night.
Mr. Mandela noted with some amusement in his 1994 autobiography, “Long Walk to Freedom,” that this congregation made him the world’s best-known political prisoner without knowing precisely who he was. Probably it was just his impish humor, but he claimed to have been told that when posters went up in London, many young supporters thought Free was his Christian name.
[Mandela recalling hotheaded student revolutionaries with exasperation:] “When you say, ‘What are you going to do?’ they say, ‘We will attack and destroy them!’ I say: ‘All right, have you analyzed how strong they are, the enemy? Have you compared their strength to your strength?’ They say, ‘No, we will just attack!’ ”
In interviews published in Mr. Gevisser’s biography, Mr. Mbeki chafed at President Mandela’s ability to rule by charm and stature, with little attention to the mechanics of governing.
“Madiba didn’t pay any attention to what the government was doing,” Mr. Mbeki said, using the clan name for his predecessor. “We had to, because somebody had to.”

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