Nelson Mandela and the Dangers of Deification

December 12, 2013 - 5:31 AM


The death of iconic South African leader Nelson Mandela prompted torrents of gushing praise from world leaders and media this week. Mandela was widely depicted as a near-flawless human being. BBC presenter Evan Davis said Mandela ranked near Jesus in the "pantheon of virtue"; Bono said Mandela was "stubborn 'til the end for all the right reasons, it felt like he very nearly outstared his maker."

But the truth about Mandela is somewhat more shaded. He will be remembered for his magnificent legacy of racial unification in the aftermath of his release from prison in 1990. Mandela's critics worried, not unreasonably, that the committed leader of the African National Congress could lead a race war in revenge for the horrors of apartheid. Instead, Mandela took the leadership of his country with an open hand, and in the process, set a global example of forgiveness on both a personal and national stage.

But Mandela was also a terrorist leader associated with the Communist Party during his early career. His ANC was responsible for violence and murder against both military and civilian targets. During his prison term, his wife Winnie became famous for allegedly using "necklaces" — oil-soaked tires set aflame and placed around the heads of opponents. (They later divorced.)

He remained close with Cuban dictator Fidel Castro ("Long live the Cuban revolution. Long live comrade Fidel Castro"), personally supported Libyan thug Moammar Gadhafi ("It is our duty to give support to the brother leader"), sold tanks to the Syrians and backed the terrorist Palestinian regime of Yasser Arafat ("There are many similarities between our struggle and that of the PLO"). Mandela said: "If there is a country that has committed unspeakable atrocities in the world, it is the United States of America. They don't care for human beings."

Mandela's administration was remarkable in its attempt to solidify the country instead of dividing it along racial lines. But it also infamously ignored the threat of HIV/AIDS and did little or nothing about the explosion of murder and rape in the country. South Africa remains one of the developed world's most dangerous countries, with 65,000 rapes a year. Select surveys show one in three women saying she had been raped in the past year, and one in four men saying he had participated in a rape. Racial murder remains incredibly high. Mandela's ANC has run the country since 1994.

So, how do we remember Mandela? The world will remember him for the good he did rather than the evil he embraced. That's appropriate and praiseworthy; his living legacy to the world will be his support for racial reconciliation rather than the violence of his youth or the incompetence of his administration and successors.

But the media's deification of Mandela means that millions around the world will lump in Mandela's bad with his good. Instead of separating Mandela's racial record from his support for communistic regimes, the media celebrate him as a sort of bridge between the Castros of the world and the West. Even more problematic is that President Barack Obama, who warmly shook the hand of Raul Castro at Mandela's funeral, does, too.

This is the problem with our "good person" versus "evil person" view of history. Most of us, in our daily lives, say that someone is "good" when we mean that he is more likely than not to take a good action; we say that someone is "evil" when he is more likely than not to embrace the evil position.

But in the Vaseline-covered lens of the media camera, every "good" person becomes a perfect person. The truth is more nuanced: Mandela did some incredible things, and he did some terrible things. The overall analysis of his life will weigh his largest and most important choice as the heaviest, as it should. But that should not mean that all of his sins become virtues, just as for his detractors, all of his virtues should not become sins.