Nelson Mandela

Stephen W. Smith

Nelson Mandela’s death, at the age of 95, comes as a relief. He should have been allowed the dignity of only dying once. In the past two years, in and out of hospital, he seldom recognised his wife Graça Machel, his former wife Winnie, his children or his old comrades from the ANC. What is more, since the end of his presidency in 1999, the 'rainbow nation' had been dying with him.

Mandela’s successor, Thabo Mbeki, a champion of the 'African Renaissance', was an ideologue whose beliefs cost the lives of 300,000 HIV-positive South Africans: he denied them access to antiretroviral drugs. The current head of state, Jacob Zuma, is most flatteringly referred to as 'a man of the people' – Chinua Achebe’s postcolonial curse. He presides over a republic of grifters and grafters. The recently excluded leader of the ANC Youth League, Julius Malema, is not even a remote heir to the Mandela legacy, though Mandela was a 'young Turk' of the party in his day: Malema is a hard man doubling as an agent provocateur.

Until his 70th birthday in 1988 and the Wembley solidarity concert, which turned the negative 'Down with apartheid!' into the positive 'Free Mandela!', the man on Robben Island was regarded by Western governments as a terrorist. In detention he was forgotten in the early 1970s and then eclipsed by Steve Biko and the Black Consciousness Movement. He was resurrected as the figurehead of a mass movement, largely thanks to Winnie Mandela's combativeness, and became the grand old man of the ANC – a role Walter Sisulu or Govan Mbeki could also have played. In the end, Mandela was and wasn’t the embodiment of the ANC. He led the country in a peaceful post-apartheid settlement – a political miracle – but behind his back and even before he left the presidential office, party stalwarts and the 'comrades in business' had begun to exercise their muscle.

Mandela took the hero’s approach to adversity. In 1963, having been held incommunicado for 90 days during which the police had assured them that they would all be hanged, the leadership of the ANC finally met with their lawyers only to be told they should 'prepare for the worst'. In his four-hour closing statement at the Rivonia trial, Mandela pleaded guilty in the name of his ideal of 'a democratic society with equal opportunities for all'. When he sat down again on the bench, he tried to cheer up his co-defendants: 'I don’t want to die but if this leads to death, the first thing I’ll do on arrival is to join the local branch of the ANC.' The remark would have been impossible in his last moments, half a century on.


  • 6 December 2013 at 9:51am
    RobotBoy says:
    I remember watching Mandela's interview with Ted Koppel on network TV soon after his release. Koppel tried to call him out for the ANC's links to Cuba and the PLO. Mandela said that they had supported the ANC when no one else would, and he wasn't going to criticize them to make America happy. His serenity and control - his aura - were astonishing. 'I'm watching a great man,' I thought, for the first time in my life. It's heartbreaking that his legacy is so troubled.

  • 6 December 2013 at 11:09am
    stanly says:
    It was recently i read Henning Mankell's The White Lioness. It's all about Nelson Mandela and the transition of South Africa, though Mandela is not directly present in the novel. While unraveling an assassination plot, Mankell offers a repulsive account of the apartheid South Africa--the deep state, a society on the brink of collapse, institutionalized racism, rampant poverty, etc. If the novel, written in 1993, offers any lining of hope, it was Nelson Mandela. Obviously, that was the mood in the early 1990s. Twenty years later, when Mandela lies in his little box, still, it's worth asking whether he lived up to the hopes of his people. History will give us mixed answers. Once in power, Mandela and his party, ANC, backed off from several of their earlier promises. ANC initiated rampant privatization, which, as journalist John Pilger said, led to the beginning of an "economic apartheid" and stayed away from radical overhaul of the system in the name of "reconciliation". A black bourgeoisie took the reins of South Africa from the White racists, when hopes were strangulated. This is not to question the greatness of Mandela. He was, of course, a great man. Without him, South Africa would have been a much worse place for his people. But he could have made their lives much better than what it's now if he continued his glorious fights in the post-apartheid South Africa.

  • 9 December 2013 at 10:14pm
    Simon Wood says:
    He was pushed into bothering far more than he may have done normally. No wonder he sympathised with those who put him away. That's how he became the George Best of politics, well Pele, Eusebio, maybe. And no wonder no-one can match up to him there, unless anyone else is willing to be put away for a lifetime of 27 years.