For Mandela, Reverence, but Criticism, Too

By Rick Lyman
December 08, 2013 –

Nelson MandelaJOHANNESBURG — Nelson Mandela was deeply respected in his homeland, and almost worshiped by many for his definitive role in ending white rule and installing multiracial democracy.

But he was never above reproach, political observers say.

When Andile Mngxitama, a black-consciousness advocate and frequent critic of Mr. Mandela, fired yet another broadside at the former leader before he died — comparing him unfavorably to neighboring Zimbabwe’s authoritarian president, Robert Mugabe — it certainly caught the attention of South Africa’s political class.

“It’s not an exaggeration to say Mandela’s leadership style, characterized by accommodation with the oppressors, will be forgotten, if not rejected within a generation,” he wrote in June.

That is not, to say the least, the mainstream view here.

“The point is that it was not a popular position, but no one beat him up for it,” said Steven Friedman, a University of Johannesburg political science professor and director of the Center for the Study of Democracy.

“There isn’t this kind of mania about him here that there is in some quarters overseas,” Mr. Friedman said of Mr. Mandela. “This sanctified image of him has always been more extreme elsewhere in the world than the local attitude.”

Indeed, the picture that the world had of Mr. Mandela was as an almost saintly figure, the faultless “father of the nation.” Images of the heartfelt prayer gatherings and candlelight vigils in recent months as South Africans came to terms with his death have reinforced that view.

But Mr. Mandela was a politician, among the most transformative of his era, but still a politician. As such, he went through the usual ups and downs that characterize any political career.

“Nelson Mandela was not a saint. We would dishonor his memory if we treated him as if he was one,” Pierre de Vos, a law professor, wrote on Friday in The Daily Maverick, an online magazine in South Africa, arguing that Mr. Mandela’s genius lay in his willingness to bend and compromise. “Like all truly exceptional human beings, he was a person of flesh and blood, with his own idiosyncrasies, his own blind spots and weaknesses.”

Sometimes, though, the criticisms came in oblique, roundabout ways.

“Often, criticism of Mandela was disguised as criticism of others,” said Adam Habib, vice chancellor of the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. “Some of the things that his successor, Thabo Mbeki, was criticized for were actually things that Mandela had initiated or supported.”

Those who were critical of things like the government’s slow reaction to the AIDS crisis or the halting steps toward economic equality often heaped their abuse on Mr. Mbeki without acknowledging that Mr. Mandela also shared responsibility for the slowness.

Even officials in the governing party, the African National Congress, would often talk about mistakes that “we” had made, when they were actually Mr. Mandela’s own initiatives, Mr. Habib said. They simply felt that it would be more palatable among their supporters to disguise the true target of their criticism.

Still, as Mr. Mandela’s life drew to a close, there were clearly efforts from all political corners to define his legacy and claim a portion of it. And some saw political calculation at work.
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2 thoughts on “For Mandela, Reverence, but Criticism, Too”

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  2. This is a lot of bullocks. Mandela had only two choices, the option pursued by Mugabe, or the one he chose. Since the hung Mugabe out to dry, and now proceed to do the same with Mandela, it was a devil or deep blue sea scenario.

    Lost in this whole supposedly objective reasoning is the fact that the British reneged on a Lancaster House Agreement to compensate white farmers for the 82% of arable lands that had been forcibly expropriated from the indigenous peoples of Zimbabwe in a land repatriation arrangement. They fail or refuse to acknowledge that Mugabe resorted to summary repatriation only after the British reneged on that agreement.

    Imagine the difference in Western response between the Israelis expropriation of Palestinian territories, and the response to Zimbabwe’s repatriation of the legitimate lands to the indigenous peoples of Zimbabwe. The hypocrisy is so obscenely stifling one has the urge to puke.

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