The Revolution of Letting Go

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.

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9 Responses to The Revolution of Letting Go

  1. Timothy Burke says:

    Havel is definitely another fascinating case of the achievement of political power not causing someone to lose their moral understanding of power.

  2. Its interesting how The Great Person Theory of History still holds so much undeserved sway among the public. Maybe it’s because of its simplicity, or the optimistic championing of individual power and potential. Like you note, in rare cases such as Mandela’s, the theory carries at least a little weight. Although what-if historical speculation is decidedly problematic and non-academic, do you think any individual or group of individuals could have adequately filled Mandela’s shoes if he hadn’t been alive?

  3. Timothy Burke says:

    I think Mandela had close partners or co-actors who shared his basic vision, or who reinforced it. Walter and Albertina Sisulu and Desmond Tutu, for example. To some extent, some of the classically liberal impulses and ideas that got pushed aside elsewhere in African political responses to British decolonization, in part because of the ham-fisted racialism of the Capricorn Africa Society, stayed “in the mix” in the ANC, and I think that was important. But you have to give Mandela personally a lot of credit for not taking all the mythologizing done on his behalf while he was in prison and turning it towards a cult of personality. That would have been easy, it would have been powerful, it would have been a simple way to silence or discipline some of the younger Black Consciousness-oriented convicts who came into Robben Island after 1976.

  4. Doug says:

    Prison seems very much to have been a catalyst for Havel, too. Though of course he didn’t spend as long there as Mandela. Check also on the close partners: other dissidents and nonconforming creators in Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Poland. Plus looser (I think) contacts with dissidents in the USSR.

    With nearly two dozen new(ish) states, Central and Eastern Europe are great for comparisons. Walesa, for example, got strange in power. Adam Michnik didn’t hold office, but he’s been editor of the biggest daily newspaper and a top media executive since the fall of communism. That may be more power over the long haul than one or two terms at the top. He seems to have mastered the transition. But it’s probably hard to say before hand which countries will get Mandela and which Milosevic.

  5. peter55 says:

    Although I am certainly a great admirer of Vaclav Havel, it is not clear to me that he is the moral saint which many people believe. Reading his latest work of biography, it seems clear he did his best – both openly and secretly – in November and December 1989 to ensure that Alexander Dubcek would not emerge from the Velvet Revolution as Czechoslovakia’s President. Perhaps, as he suggests, that was for the best, if Dubcek was really the vacillating procrastinator Havel claims him to have been. But I heard no one, other than the Kremlin, claim that Dubcek was a vacillator in 1968 (although, thinking of those events now in retrospect, he may well have been.)

    It is clear from this episode that Havel was (and perhaps still is) ruthless in seizing opportunities to advance his own position. I happen to think that this attribute both necessary and desirable in a political leader, and this is why leadership and sainthood are mutually exclusive categories. Even Nelson Mandela, after all, despatched pretty ruthlessly both his first wife and his second.

    Revealingly, in the same volume Havel labels his rival and successor Vaclav Klaus, “ambitious”, yet says this label is not a criticism. What an interesting statement this makes about Havel!

  6. Timothy Burke says:

    Mandela could be absolutely ruthless at times. I also don’t see that as a problem.

    I think the kind of ambition that Havel might have found troubling is the ambition to have power for power’s sake, for personal gratification, not to build or make or construct something.

  7. peter55 says:

    Timothy —

    I know this is slightly off-topic, but I thought you may be interested in this article about events in Zimbabwe in today’s “Sunday Times” (London, UK), by South African journalist RW Johnson:

  8. Timothy Burke says:

    Interesting, but that very much falls under the heading of “I’ll believe it when I see it”. The real problem is that it’s more or less confirmed now that Mugabe is only the figurehead for a military-police “silent coup”. So if Tsvangirai is actually allowed to be the executive, it’s going to be a poison chalice unless he has cooperation from inside the middle ranks of ZANU and from the military and police.

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