The Mandela Myth

December 10, 2013 Topic: DemocracyHistorySociety Region: AfricaSouth Africa

The Mandela Myth

People seeking a messiah have blinded themselves to his many errors and imperfections.


How best to appreciate the huge world-wide acclaim for Nelson Mandela, the endless eulogies from politicians, TV and film stars, politicians, and other celebrities? The beginning of wisdom is to realize that there has, for a long time now, been an enormous Western longing to find and celebrate a Third World leader and saint. Lenin, Stalin and Mao enjoyed such acclaim at various stages, but so did Nkrumah, Ho Chi Minh, Amilcar Cabral, Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, Hugo Chavez ,and various others. In every case, they were found to have feet of clay or worse. In the modern era, two men have enjoyed uncritical acclaim: Gandhi and Mandela. Yet Gandhi was a failed lawyer who had to leave India for South Africa to make a living. He denounced railways, doctors, modern medicine, hospitals and most other elements of modern life. He also regarded South African blacks as mere savages and defended the Indian caste system. Similarly, Nelson Mandela had his full share of failings.

But in the case of Gandhi and Mandela, none of that seems to matter. This canonization seems to depend on a bottomless well of guilt about slavery, colonialism, and the mistreatment of people of color down the years, allied to a pursuit of the “noble savage” and a longing to discover that somewhere, somehow, the Third World has discovered a new model, a new way which will transcend our fault-riven capitalism and our dead-end communism. It is as if by devoting oneself to one of these superheroes, one can receive absolution from that crushing burden of guilt. One appreciates these feelings: they are widespread, real and powerful, and they are a discredit to nobody. Unfortunately, that is all they are. Reality is something else.


The key facts of Mandela's life are that in the 1940s he, together with Oliver Tambo and Walter Sisulu, captured the Youth League of South Africa's main black nationalist party, the African National Congress (ANC). At much the same time, the small but influential South African Communist Party (SACP) entered an alliance with the ANC and began to infiltrate it at various levels. In 1952 the ANC leader, James Moroka, was overthrown by these more radical forces, which judged him too conservative. His successor, Chief Albert Luthuli, was a Christian liberal but he was always aware that the Communists had overthrown his predecessor and he wanted to accommodate them rather than suffer the same fate himself. However, in April 1959 the ANC split, with many radicals walking out to form the Pan Africanist Congress, (PAC) led by Robert Sobukwe. The PAC angrily denounced the overwhelming influence of the SACP within the ANC, and demanded a party which was wholly African. Sobukwe was a talented and charismatic leader, and the PAC rapidly gained ground.

This panicked the SACP, then a mainly white, Jewish body. Two rising SACP leaders, Joe Slovo and his wife, Ruth First, had mentored and brought on the young Mandela, enrolled him in the Party, and positioned him as the obvious next leader of the ANC. The SACP decided that the only way to head off the threat from the PAC was to launch an armed struggle against the apartheid government. The Party accordingly set up Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation, or MK). It was a 100% Communist organization and Mandela, who headed it, was then on the Party's Central Committee, a fact about which he lied both in court and later in his autobiography.

When MK launched its campaign of sabotage the ANC was hurriedly pushed into accepting it, so that it was then adopted as the ANC's armed wing. Luthuli, who believed in nonviolence, was brutally shunted aside to allow Mandela to become the new leader. MK was no match for the South African police and its leaders were rapidly rounded up and jailed. For the next twenty-eight years the armed struggle was little more than a militant gesture. It never remotely threatened the government's control.

In jail Mandela gradually took up a more nationalist position and quarrelled with the hardline Communists led by Govan Mbeki, the father of Thabo Mbeki who succeeded Mandela as President. The ANC in exile were continually worried that Mandela might strike a deal with his jailers or sell the movement out but he never did: he was an utterly disciplined ANC militant. When he was finally released in 1990, ANC activists thrust into his hand a speech they had prepared, full of Marxism-Leninism, threats of nationalization and so forth. The tone was utterly militant and hard line. Mandela loyally read out the speech. This spectacle was to be repeated many times. But the major fact was that the exiled ANC had decided that if negotiations were to happen they had to reposition the party by going on a charm offensive and adopting an attitude of racial reconciliation. This suited Mandela perfectly—these were clearly his own feelings anyway—but had the party decided the opposite he would undoubtedly have followed the opposite policy.

What no one can take away is that Mandela showed extraordinary courage and fortitude through twenty-eight years in jail, and he adopted a generous attitude of forgiving his enemies when he emerged from jail. These are the two things that people all over the world remember.

Otherwise, people exhibit an extraordinary amnesia. His presidential term started with the Shell House shootings, when ANC militants on the roof of the ANC's headquarters used AK-47s to gun down Inkatha marchers in the streets of Johannesburg. Mandela simply refused to hand over either the murderers or their weapons, and attempted to justify this wholesale murder. Then, early in his term, the government laid off all the country's most experienced teachers, a blow from which the school system has never recovered. Mandela's administration also saw the passage of perhaps the most extreme labour laws in the world and radical affirmative action laws which saw the ruination of the civil service by the mass replacement of skilled whites and Asians by mainly unskilled Africans. The civil service has also never recovered.

His administration also presided over a scandalous and extremely corrupt arms deal. We do not know whether Mandela profited personally from this; the presumption is that he didn't. Near the end of his administration he gave probably the most extreme speech given by any South African president when he suggested that there was a vast conspiracy of opposition parties, NGOs and criminal gangs, all trying to overthrow the government. The object of the speech, quite transparently, was to lay out the rationale for highly repressive measures.

On top of that Mandela was quietly told that his mentions of HIV/AIDS were unpopular with black audiences so he shut up completely about the subject thereafter. Thus, it was under his administration that the disease grew to epidemic proportions in the country. Similarly, his early pleading with whites not to emigrate and deprive the country of their skills led to accusations that he was too prowhite. So he then turned round and said if people wanted to emigrate, good riddance to them. Similarly, when the press criticised the ANC government he attacked it for being “white-controlled”, even though most editors were already black. So, despite his reputation for reconciliation, he was not slow to play the race card when it suited him.

In retirement he attempted to repair some of the damage he had done over AIDS—by then 30 percent of young black mothers were infected with the virus. In fact he made no progress, because the successor he had chosen, Thabo Mbeki, turned out to be an AIDS denialist. Mandela also personally insisted on Jacob Zuma being made Deputy President and is thus also responsible for the disastrous Zuma administration currently in power.

Mandela's work for children was prodigious and merited every positive adjective. But there were queries over the way the Mandela Foundation was run. Increasingly, foreign celebrities were milked of large sums—at least $1 million a throw—in order to dine with Mandela and be photographed with him. A number of extremely dubious characters paid these sums in the hope of sanitizing their image, including the Liberian warlord, Charles Taylor, who had been judged of having committed crimes against humanity.

The outpouring of world grief and tributes to Mandela has no time for any ifs or buts, let alone the many qualifications which apply to his political career. Ronald Reagan was always said to be the Teflon President, but compared to Mandela he was virtually flypaper.

R.W. Johnson is an emeritus fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford, where he taught politics and sociology. His most recent book is South Africa’s Brave New World. He lives in Cape Town.

Image: Flickr/Paul Simpson. CC BY 2.0.