Many people were saddened to hear that Nelson Mandela passed away on Dec. 5 at his home in Johannesburg. The 95-year-old anti-apartheid crusader and former South African president’s incredible life had served as an inspiration to different races and religions across the globe.
One well-known admirer was President Obama. He had toured Mr. Mandela’s homeland earlier this year, including the infamous Robb Island prison cell where Mr. Mandela was incarcerated for 18 years. Although Mr. Obama was unable to visit Mr. Mandela in the hospital, the significance of his visit — one nation’s first black president visiting another — was obviously quite remarkable.
Mr. Obama’s trip also led to some, shall we say, creative historical comparisons. In one notable example, he drew an imaginary line between Mr. Mandela and America’s first president, George Washington: “And what Nelson Mandela also stood for is that the well-being of the country is more important than the interests of any one person. George Washington is admired because after two terms, he said. ‘Enough, I’m going back to being a citizen.’ There were no term limits, but he said, ‘I’m a citizen. I served my time. And it’s time for the next person, because that’s what democracy is about.’ And Mandela similarly was able to recognize that, despite how revered he was, that part of this transition process was greater than one person.”
During the current grieving process, Mr. Obama is certainly due some slack. Yet his statement opened the door to an interesting (albeit controversial) question. Was Mr. Mandela’s life and career pushed a bit too high up the proverbial pedestal?
Mr. Mandela obviously deserved recognition for his positive accomplishments. Born into a royal South African family, he earned a bachelor’s degree from Fort Hare and a law degree from the University of Witwatersrand. He played a major role in the African National Congress, and helped form the ANC Youth League. He courageously fought against his country’s disgraceful apartheid laws, and was arrested in the fight for freedom for black South Africans. He sat in prison for nearly 30 years, a symbol in the struggle for basic human rights. Mr. Mandela’s sudden release from prison in February 1990 shook his country’s foundations and gave our world a real dose of hope and change.
We should also be honest about his negative qualities.
For example, Mr. Mandela was sympathetic to communism for many years. He studied the works of Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin and Mao Zedong — and agreed with many of their ideas. He counted two schoolmates, South African Communist Party leader Joe Slovo and his wife, Ruth First, among his friends and associates. Moreover, in Stephen Ellis’ 2012 book, “External Mission: The ANC in Exile, 1960-1990,” the Desmond Tutu social sciences professor at Free University Amsterdam unearthed documents revealing that Mr. Mandela may have been, contrary to his long-standing denial, a South African Communist Party member.
Mr. Mandela wasn’t a champion of free markets, privatization or capitalism, either. This was perfectly captured in a Jan. 3, 2000, essay for Time magazine about one of his idols, Mahatma Gandhi. He glowingly wrote, “[Gandhi] rejects Darwin’s survival of the fittest, Adam Smith’s laissez-faire and Karl Marx’s thesis of a natural antagonism between capital and labor, and focuses on the interdependence between the two … . We in South Africa brought about our new democracy relatively peacefully on the foundations of such thinking, regardless of whether we were directly influenced by Gandhi or not. Gandhi remains today the only complete critique of advanced industrial society.” That’s why many conservatives — and some liberals — were initially concerned about his presidency and South Africa’s economic future.
In a 2012 BBC interview, former South African President F.W. de Klerk correctly said, “When Mandela goes, it will be a moment when all South Africans put away their political differences, will take hands, and will together honor maybe the biggest-known South African that has ever lived.”
To be sure, Mr. Mandela accomplished many great things. Yet he wasn’t the godlike figure that some people, such as Mr. Obama, made him out to be. Like all human beings, he was fallible. He made good choices as well as his fair share of mistakes. We should, therefore, honor Mr. Mandela as an important world figure — with the realization that no individual, regardless of background and life experiences, should ever be free from criticism in life and in death. May he rest in peace.
Michael Taube is a contributor to The Washington Times.