Mandela at 85

This appreciation was published in several countries, including Britain and South Africa, when Mandela turned 85 in 2003


Nelson Mandela endured nearly three decades in prison and emerged without bitterness. He steered South Africa through what one of his biographers called a “negotiated revolution”, transferring power from the white minority to the black majority without the bloodbath many assumed to be inevitable. He set African leaders a rare example by stepping down after one term, and is still a moral force in world affairs. Yet he is no saint.

Who says so? His wife, Graca Machel. “He is a symbol, but not a saint,” she told his authorised biographer, Anthony Sampson. “Whatever happens to him, it is a mark of the liberation of the African people.”

Graca, the widow of Mozambique’s independence leader Samora Machel, is nearly 30 years younger than her new husband, whom she married on his 80th birthday, but she has long ago learned that he does not intend to subside into a quiet retirement. Indeed, the stability and support she has given him appear to have restored his zest for life after the misery of his divorce from the turbulent Winnie, now a convicted fraudster.

“I want him as a human being,” Graca told Sampson, a comment which emphasises that Nelson Mandela is a much more complex and interesting figure than the icon some seem determined to make of him. In South Africa the adulation of “Madiba” – his Xhosa clan name, which carries connotations of a much-loved elderly uncle – can be cringe-making. The local edition of Cosmopolitan magazine, for example, chose a moment, a couple of months before his marriage to Winnie was dissolved, to nominate him as the country’s sexiest and most eligible bachelor. “He’s everything a woman could want in a man – mega-powerful, kind, modest, considerate and with a great sense of humour,” it gushed. “Not to mention the cutest dimples, the world’s most winning smile and funky dress sense.”

Anyone who has seen Madiba meeting the Spice Girls or Beyoncé Knowles will know that he is not above playing up to this image: it is a reminder that in his days as a newly-qualified lawyer he was known more as a free-spending ladies’ man than as a focused political activist. He even fancied that he could have become a professional boxer, to the horror not only of his friends in the African National Congress, but tribal elders back in the Transkei, where his royal blood created certain expectations. “My greatest regret in life,” he once quipped, “is that I did not become heavyweight champion of the world.”

Much of the Madiba-mania, however, appears aimed, consciously or otherwise, at rendering him somehow harmless. Among South African whites it can seem a way of distracting themselves from what lies ahead: the erosion of their economic privilege, considerable though it still remains. Outside South Africa, lavish reverence to Nelson Mandela’s inspiring past sometimes appears designed to blunt the message he is delivering now, which can be harsh..

South Africa’s former president is deeply angry, for example, about the international polarisation caused by the war in Iraq. These were his words in the run-up to the invasion: “What I condemn is one power with a president who can’t think properly and who wants to plunge the world into holocaust … All Bush wants is Iraqi oil. He is making the greatest mistake of his life by trying to cause carnage.” A pilgrimage to see Madiba is de rigeur for any foreign leader visiting South Africa, but Mr Mandela let it be known that he would not be at home to George Bush during his tour of Africa. To spare embarrassment for his successor, Thabo Mbeki, though, Madiba made sure he was abroad when Mr Bush was in the country.

Mr Mandela came to London, where he answered a speech in his praise by Tony Blair by saying that on one point – Iraq – “we differ very strongly”. Then it was on to Paris, where he was pursuing the issue which has dominated this phase of his life: Aids. He told an international conference there that despite some successes, the two-decade-old war on the disease had been a shocking failure. At least 26 million people had already died of Aids, 95 per cent of them in the developing world, and 45 million  were HIV positive, he said.

“These numbers are staggering, in fact incomprehensible,” he declared. “By all accounts we are dealing with the greatest health crisis in human history.”

The standing ovation for his speech was interrupted by demonstrators demanding funds for HIV drugs in the developing world. Most distinguished speakers would have tried to ignore the disruption, but Mr Mandela clapped along to their slogans and hugged one of their number when she clambered up on stage. It helps to explain why, despite his years, he appeals so much to the young. More than that, however, it shows that he remains a revolutionary at heart.

Mr Mandela’s passionate campaigning on the Aids question is an acknowledgement of his failure to tackle the issue when he was president. South Africa has one of the highest rates of HIV infection in the world, if not the worst of all, but he did not heed calls to use his unique authority to confront the problem. It could be argued that there were many other priorities, from racial reconciliation to maintaining economic confidence and redressing the crimes of apartheid: South Africa’s establishment of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, for all its imperfections, is an example that has been followed in the wake of many other vicious conflicts around the world.

Perhaps it is not surprising that Aids did not immediately fit into the social and political preoccupations of a man who was 72 when he emerged from 26 years of imprisonment. Shut away from the world between 1964 and 1990, Mr Mandela missed the upheavals in personal morality of the 1960s and 1970s, the “Me Decade”, yuppiedom and the rest: he might have considered it beneath his hard-won dignity to deal with the consequences of what people did in their bedrooms. Whatever the reason for his reticence, he has done everything to make up for it since. Africans remain reluctant to admit the cause of death when Aids has killed a friend or relative, but Mr Mandela has announced that three members of his family have died of the disease.

The Aids question was almost the only one on which Madiba was willing to disagree publicly with his successor, whose reluctance to accept the link between HIV and Aids, and suspicion of the international drugs companies, fatally hampered South Africa’s response to the problem. Mr Mbeki might have succeeded in ignoring the crisis, had Mr Mandela not used his iconic status to demand action.

And much of that status rests upon the unique circumstances of his life. When he disappeared to Robben Island, he was 46. If he had never re-emerged, how would he have been remembered? As a man with the aura of a leader, certainly, but one who could also be headstrong and boastful. The photographs show a powerful, confident man with the physique of a boxer, in the company of the beautiful Winnie Madikizela, for whom he had dumped his first wife. His charismatic qualities helped him lead the revolution within the ANC which brought a new, more aggressive generation to the fore, but they proved a liability when he chose to go underground. His personal security was so poor that he did not remain at large for long.

Asked how all those years in prison had changed him, Mr Mandela replied: “I came out mature.” A photograph showing him with Walter Sisulu, his closest comrade on the island, is almost the only one from his entire period of imprisonment, but in apartheid South Africa it was forbidden to publish any pictures of Mr Mandela or quote any of his words. Not until shortly before his release did South Africans see what had become of him. The boxer was now an old man, thinner and grey-haired, but still upright: above all, he radiated dignity and authority. For fearful white South Africans who still pictured him as some kind of scowling revolutionary, it must have come as a pleasant shock.

The tale of how Nelson Mandela’s calm refusal to yield won the admiration not only of his fellow prisoners, but eventually of his captors, from the warders on Robben Island to the last white president, FW de Klerk, has been told many times. What is less often pointed out is that his removal insulated him from the betrayals and sometimes bloody struggles within the ANC that are the lot of any exiled resistance movement. It enabled him to emerge as the untainted hope of the nation – a role which sometimes denies his humanity.

For Madiba is a man of plenty of contradictions. His experiences led to him to prize loyalty above all, which helps to explain why, despite his commitment to democracy, he clung to the friendship of old dictators like Fidel Castro and Muammar Gaddafi. He remembered that they supported the ANC when Margaret Thatcher was calling him a terrorist. And like them, he could deploy musty socialist rhetoric, though when talking of “the masses”, they would not have mentioned the clergy along with the workers and peasants, as he did. It is a reminder that the Christian faith played a large part in the South African struggle (and, arguably, exerted some constraint on the behaviour of the government being struggled against).

Despite his and the ANC’s long association with communism, Mr Mandela ran a resolutely market-oriented administration, and so have his successors. South Africa under the ANC is more open to the tides of global competition than it was under the previous government, which went in for a surprising degree of state socialism, albeit for the benefit of whites only. Many of those state-owned enterprises have been privatised since South Africa’s first free election in 1994.

All this has made the correction of South Africa’s still-yawning inequalities of wealth much slower than the masses might have been led to expect. The 1950s Freedom Charter, to which the ANC remained committed in theory when it took power, envisaged wholesale nationalisation and redistribution, however disastrous such a policy would have been in practice. Madiba persuaded South Africa’s poorest to be patient – with his own example before them, how could they do otherwise? It is a much more difficult task, however, for his successors.

This should not be seen as diminishing Nelson Mandela’s great achievement. It is simply to point out that his transition from a prison cell to the office of the president, the first to be freely elected in his nation’s history, was not the end of a fairy tale in which South Africa lived happily ever after. And he does not want to be seen as a man whose triumphs are all in the past; he remains fiercely engaged, making up for lost time.

Madiba is being celebrated so lavishly because we want to honour him while we still can. It is clear enough now what an example he is to South Africa and the world, but not until he is gone will we be able to measure his immensity. Time enough then, perhaps, to call him a saint.