I’m a little late in my remarks on Nelson Mandela’s 90th birthday, but it’s the thought that counts.
It has been fascinating to watch Mandela’s name becoming the synonym for the best combination of political power and ethical commitment, the way that “Einstein” signifies science or “Gandhi” signifies righteous protest. That apotheosis tends over time to smooth away the humanity and particular history of that person: the fact that Einstein was wrong about some key issues or that he was not just a loveably kooky thinker gets lost, the historical peculiarity of Gandhi’s syncretism and the tactical problems with his formulation of nationalism gets lost.
The complexity and humanity of Mandela’s life, which Mandela himself has always insistently emphasized as a key part of his political strategy, is at equal risk, and in this case, it’s vital that the world and South Africa not excise that from the way we remember him.
By his own account, Mandela’s time in the ANC Youth League located him within the standard histories and traditions of African nationalism at the time of its greatest flourishing, and by his own account, had that been the alpha and omega of his political experience, he would not have been the leader that he became in the 1990s. His time in prison forced him to accept that the achievement of freedom was a long game rather than a hasty political settlement. It required a steel-edged pragmatism both about negotiating with his oppressors (whether prison authorities or the apartheid state) and about accomodating ideological divergence among his allies. The prison years gave depth and reality to Mandela’s courtroom stand against tyranny both white and black, to his understanding that a free society would take more than changing the race of the prison guards or the ruling bureaucrats.
Before 1990, Mandela was no more than symbol except to those who actually came to know him within Robben Island. He could have walked out of prison and stumbled quickly on feet of clay. If Mandela has become the patron saint of the ethical use of political power, it is because of what he did when he came out of jail.
Two things especially stand out for me. First, that he agreed to testify on the stand about the Browde Commission of Inquiry’s work on rugby when he was called to do so by a judge, even though the case was motivated by political mischief. This was the real revolution: establishing that the executive in South Africa is governed by the law, rather than floating immaculately above it. All free societies must constantly revisit that moment. Every new leadership carries within it the threat to cut loose from constraints on its power, whether we’re talking about South Africa or the United States. But Mandela established this precedent in South Africa under circumstances where almost no one would have criticized him for failing to do so.
More importantly, perhaps, is that Mandela left power eagerly at the end of his appointed time, again under circumstances where hardly anyone would have stood against him had he chosen to ask for more. He did not merely leave office: he let go the political reins entirely. It’s equally important that he has carefully and selectively exercised his moral authority since entirely within the bounds of civil society, given his successor’s inability to value the independence of civil society.
Mandela is a genuinely extraordinary person, and the world is right to regard him as such. It’s important that in the rush to sanctify him we do not forget that his most admirable achievements ought to be a burr and irritant to his successors rather than a balm, a caution against the arrogance of power everywhere. Much as I think the leadership of ZANU-PF in Zimbabwe has demonstrated that at least some postcolonial failures in Africa rest on the moral, philosophical, and personal failures of a small handful of individuals, Mandela demonstrates the opposite, that in some cases, it’s possible to have done better because of individual determination and commitment. It doesn’t discount the importance of social history to recognize that occasionally, the Great Person Theory of History has some real analytical force to it.