Nelson Mandela was not a perfect man and the African National Congress to which he belonged had far from clean hands during the struggle against the terribly unjust apartheid regime in South Africa. However, when he was elected president in 1995, Mandela wisely saw reconciliation as integral to achieving anything approximating justice. Not content to dictate reconciliation, he reached out to his former enemies, seeking to be personally and publicly reconciled with them. He voluntarily chose to serve only one term as president. His personal modesty and modest lifestyle were also things that set him apart from so many other world leaders.
I firmly believe that the 27 years he spent imprisoned changed him for the better. In his autobiography, he wrote, "There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered." In his memoirs, he also observed, reflecting on his release from prison, "As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn't leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I'd still be in prison."
Here's part of what Pope Francis conveyed to the people of South Africa in a telegram sent to their current president, Jacob Zuma:
Paying tribute to the steadfast commitment shown by Nelson Mandela in promoting the human dignity of all the nation’s citizens and in forging a new South Africa built on the firm foundations of non-violence, reconciliation and truth, I pray that the late President’s example will inspire generations of South Africans to put justice and the common good at the forefront of their political aspirationsUPDATE It does not surprise me that many fail, or refuse, to grasp the dynamics involved in the long struggle against apartheid in South Africa. Perhaps this exchange from the New York Review of Books from earlier this year will help set out those complexities in bolder relief.
It's easy to forget that the U.S. strongly backed South Africa's apartheid regime almost to its end. It can be argued that we did this to the detriment of both our short and long term interests (something similar can be said our support for many brutal South American regimes who maintained our support by convincing us that all of their opponents were communists, which, we now know- many knew then- was false). In terms of South Africa, in some ways, we forced the ANC into the arms of the Soviets.
Hence, the quote making the rounds by Mandela praising Cuba, while certainly something that should not be covered up, or glossed over, like all quotes, has a context. I think people forget the conflict in Angola, which featured a U.S.-backed military intervention in that country by South Africa and Zaire. In response, and likely at the behest of the Soviets, Cuba sent troops to fight there. Angola was Cuba's "Vietnam."
As noted by veteran journalist Bill Keller, Prof Stephen Ellis, who has conducted the most extensive research on this topic, noted "Mandela’s brief, expedient membership in the [South African Communist] Party 'does not detract from his historic stature.' Mandela, Mr. Ellis told one interviewer, 'wasn’t a real convert, it was just an opportunist thing.'"
It's easy to forget that there were a lot of opportunistic "communists" during the Cold War, that is, people who were committed to their own causes, like Mandela, who were able to obtain help and assistance from the Soviet Union. Is this right? I don't believe so. But we have to be careful drawing far-reaching conclusions from scant evidence. I am certainly not promoting the sainthood cause of Pres. Mandela.
I think Keller, who also points to some of the terrible things done by the ANC, grasps the reality, which, as reality tends to be, is quite complex:
Nelson Mandela was, at various times, a black nationalist and a nonracialist, an opponent of armed struggle and a practitioner of armed struggle, a close partner of the South African Communist Party and, in his presidency, a close partner of South Africa’s powerful capitalists. In other words, he was whatever served his purpose of ending South Africa’s particularly fiendish brand of minority rule. I should not have been so categorical in saying Mandela was not a Communist. But he was not a Communist in the values he upheld, the politics he practiced, the constitution he negotiated, or the presidency he heldPeople who are shocked by these facts and who, upon learning them, will either deny them outright, or emotively move from one extreme to the other as regards Mandela, need to both wake up and grow up. Many were surprised at the time apartheid crumbled that South Africa, which is still far from a wholly healed country, did not erupt into a violent, bloody civil war (the struggle to end apartheid was not bloodless, far from it) is a great credit to Nelson Mandela, as well as others. But it was his presidency that proved crucial in the early years of majority rule. UPDATE END