Why is Nelson Mandela so revered?

Former UK Ambassador Charles Crawford recalls meeting Mandela after his release, and offers piercing analysis about our reactions to him and his legacy

Farewell to a great man, and an icon
Charles Crawford
On 6 December 2013 11:58

So, why is Mandela so revered? Partly it’s a carefully cultivated mythology that this saintly man presided over a saintly process. Type "South Africa peaceful transition" into Google and over a million hits appear.

There are references aplenty to statements such as this: South Africa’s peaceful transition to democracy was indeed a miracle that captured the imagination of people all over the world.

Fine, soaring sentiments. And quite untrue.

Between 1985 and 1996 deaths from political violence in South Africa exceeded 20,000, with a large number taking place in the KwaZulu/Natal area. In Poland by contrast deaths from political violence of different shapes and sizes during the Solidarity period and through to the first free elections were very rare, to the point where individual killings of pro-democracy activists such as Father Popieluszko were a major mobilising event.

That small death toll did not make the Polish transition from communism ‘peaceful’. During the Martial Law period thousands were beaten or tortured or imprisoned or harassed or otherwise brutalised. From the outside it probably looked relatively calm and restrained. For Poles at the receiving end of this nationwide oppression it did not feel that way.

The point is that the world sees South Africa as a ‘peaceful’ transition only because not many pale-skinned people were killed. The fact that tens of thousands of dark-skinned people died in a disgusting civil war between Mandela’s African National Congress plus its Communist Party ally with every other African political tendency across the political spectrum is too ghastly to contemplate. So we don’t contemplate it.

Much more important - because it is true - is that Mandela came to symbolise a powerful idea that took hold round the planet: that categorising people by race is morally and politically unacceptable.

This concept of ‘racism’ had deep roots stretching right back into the highest ideals of European thought and the Enlightenment. It turned on what were then seen as high scientific and intellectual principles: that differences in human beings, like differences between insects and plants, can be precisely measured, and that consequences of these differences can and should be taken into account in devising political outcomes.

The whole apartheid legal system turned on the 1950 Population Registration Act that purported to define different ‘races’ as the basis for then segregating them in every possible walk of life. These laws in turn built on British colonial-era legislation in South Africa and other European legal norms that, of course, lived on in the United States until the 1960s.

Grotesque ideas of scientific racial categorisation are still entrenched in our own culture via the ubiquitous (and iniquitous) ‘racial’ questionnaires that British government offices emit for ‘diversity monitoring’, where the categories listed are a creepy echo of apartheid laws.

Mandela with his lofty Xhosa royal status and businesslike strict missionary education started off opposing these laws on the grounds of basic unfairness. He later became part of a much more virulent ‘anti-imperialist’ Marxist-led movement. The tension within the ANC/SACP tradition of revolutionary ‘the worse the better’ violence and a much more cautious, even forgiving approach came to a head as apartheid declined.

In the 1980s the ANC launched a calamitous campaign of township murders of political enemies led by teenagers or even children that helped create the generation responsible for the sky-high murder rates across South Africa we now see today.

Mandela in prison managed to avoid being associated with that madness and on his release worked in a spirit of steely magnanimity with F W De Klerk to preside over the change to a more or less democratic order based on simple one-person-one-vote fairness.

Given what had happened in South Africa and the wider region over the previous decades, this was an unambiguously huge political and moral achievement. The world is right to praise it and the man who symbolised it.

Mandela succeeded because on certain core beliefs he would not compromise. He was no less inflexible in his loyalty to the ANC/SACP alliance and to people he saw as key supporters of its cause. This included Gaddafi at his most extreme and absurd.

Tony Blair is now denounced on all sides for engaging personally with Gaddafi even though he achieved a superb result in persuading Gaddafi to renounce Libya’s WMD stocks. This policy flowed from Mandela personally urging Blair to follow this path. Alas for Mandela (and Gaddafi) Gaddafi was too crazy to follow Mandela’s own lead and step down gracefully from power when the time came to do so.

The New York Times obituary of Nelson Mandela does a fine job in looking at his life and beliefs, including the less happy aspects. Buried deep in it is a telling passage:

Mr. Mandela mostly refrained from directly criticizing his successor, but his disappointment was unmistakable when Mr. Mbeki showed his intolerance of criticism and his conspiratorial view of the world…

In the 2007 interview, speaking on the condition that he not be quoted until after his death, Mr. Mandela was openly scornful of Mr. Mbeki’s leadership: “There is a great deal of centralization now under President Mbeki, where he takes decisions himself,” Mr. Mandela declared. “We never liked that.”

Mandela tragically pulled his punches in not opposing Mbeki on his deranged views on AIDS. Had the apartheid regime allowed hundreds of thousands of Africans to die by denying them basic drugs, the world would have screamed for genocide trials. When the supposedly progressive ANC leadership did the same, the world looked away in furtive embarrassment.

Nelson Mandela was released from prison to global acclamation on 11 February 1990. I was up-country in deepest Transkei. My friend and colleague John Sawers (now Sir John and head of MI6) as First Secretary (economic) was there in the thick of the action, one of the first Western diplomats to greet Mandela in person after all those long years of imprisonment.

A few months later I am left to run the Embassy ship on a sleepy afternoon in Pretoria when our Deputy Head of Mission departs to meet Mandela in Soweto. The telephone rings. The security guard at the gate: "Nelson Mandela is here!" Panic.

I race down to greet Mandela and escort him to the absent Ambassador's office. His people mutter something unconvincing (and untrue) about having called us to say that the meeting with the Deputy Head of Mission was to be here, not in Soweto. Thus it transpires that I, a medium-ranked British diplomat in Pretoria, have the most famous person in the world and a couple of his people, all to myself.

We talk mainly about that ghastly violence in KwaZulu, where ANC/SACP members and Inkatha supporters of Zulu leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi are killing each other in terrible numbers. Finally Mandela sharply says "Would you people support Buthelezi as President?"

I reply, "If he wins a free and fair election of all South Africans, why not? A long awkward silence. One of Mandela's people through gritted teeth: "Good answer!"

Mandela decides not to wait for my boss to return from Soweto and departs. It is more than touching to see the Embassy’s South African local staff, mainly conservative minded prim middle-class Afrikaner women, lining the corridor and clapping their hands and jostling to meet him.

Mandela beams at the acclaim. They seem to grasp for the first time that they too are part of something extraordinary. And, yes, they are.

Charles Crawford is a Contributing Editor to The Commentator. A former British Ambassador in Sarajevo, Belgrade and Warsaw, he is now a private consultant and writer. Visit his website and follow him on Twitter: @charlescrawford

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