The beatification of Nelson Mandela

Western leaders hope and pray that by beatifying Mandela, by turning him into a secular saint, his strength of character will somehow live on after his death, and chaos, Zimbabwe style, will be avoided

Next to godliness
Vincent Cooper
On 13 December 2013 09:28

Nelson Mandela is widely admired as the man who, through his suffering, forgiveness and moral decency, brought South Africa from a white dominated apartheid state to a peaceful pluralist state of popular democracy.

Without the moral superiority of Nelson Mandela, a great liberator able to forgive whites their sin of hate and prevent blacks committing a sin of revenge, South Africa would have succumbed to civil war.

Western liberal countries, particularly Britain and the US who were prominent in the liberal propaganda battle against the beleaguered white state back in the 60s, 70s and 80s, have a powerful interest in this narrative of events. But how accurate is it?

There is no reason to doubt Mandela’s decency. He publicly stated, alongside former white president de Klerk, “Wat verby is, is verby” -- let bygones be bygones.

Among a black population for whom Mandela was a revered figure, such a public statement would have been taken to heart. There can be no doubt that, without Nelson Mandela, there would have been no peaceful transition to majority rule.

But the world of politics is never that simple. There was as much calculating pragmatism as there was morality in Mandela’s public stance after he was released from prison.

In the heady idealism and ‘We Shall Overcome’ pop-idol politics of the 60s, the 1964 trial that convicted Mandela of sabotage and conspiracy was turned on its head into a world-wide triumph in the fight against apartheid.

To the Western liberal, Mandela was no revolutionary communist prepared to use violence to create a totalitarian Soviet state in South Africa. He was a martyr in the fight against the West’s new-found original sin of racism.

From the moment of his conviction Mandela was all Sweetness and Light while South African whites were demonised throughout the West as Cromwellian puritans who refused to enter the twentieth century. That the beleaguered South African whites might have had a case was not entertained.   

This Sweetness and Light image of Mandela suited not just Western liberals but the anti-Western Soviet Union and China, at the time funding violent revolution throughout Africa and themselves, of course, paragons of freedom.

Facts can be awkward. The British historian Stephen Ellis has shown that Mandela had secretly been a member of the South African Communist Party’s Central Committee at the time of his trial in 1964. Membership of the South African Communist Party was vehemently denied, but there can be little doubt that Mandela and the other defendants in the trial were serious about the use of violence and turning South Africa into a pro-Soviet totalitarian Marxist state. 

As the South African journalist Rian Malan points out, almost all of Mandela’s co-conspirators were committed to ‘a Sovietist doctrine that envisaged a two-phase ending to the South African struggle -- a “democratic national revolution”, followed by a second revolution in which the Marxist-Leninist vanguard took power.’

Faced with this deadly threat, the determination of the South African government to resist Mandela and the ANC was perfectly reasonable. Only Western liberals, singing ‘We Shall Overcome’ at a safe distance from the battlefield could believe otherwise.

By the time of Mandela’s release from prison, the Russian-led communist empire had collapsed and communists everywhere, including Mandela, had to accommodate to a new reality. Communism was no longer bankable for Third World revolutionaries

Indeed, the collapse of Russian communism must have had a lot to do with the timing of Mandela’s release. It is known that for years Mandela had been holding discussions in prison with high-ranking officials of the South African Government, discussing the terms of his eventual release. Communism was dead and Mandela’s conversion to the politics of reconciliation could be seen as little more than a case of making a virtue of necessity.  

There was also the vital need to avoid a destructive civil war. Certainly in the short term, without the whites there could be no viable economy. Indeed, South Africa as an economic entity was largely a white creation. Mandela eventually came to understand this, hence his change of heart.

To say this is not to deny Nelson Mandela the moral stature he enjoys. However, there are dangers in investing in one man all the virtues necessary to govern a state. What happens after he is gone? Mandela has become the personal embodiment of peace and reconciliation in his country. That has dangers.

Now that Mandela is dead, there is concern that his charismatic authority might die with him and that the country could slip into anarchy. The example of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe across the border is not good.

This concern explains much of the relentless adulation of Mandela by world, particularly Western leaders. They hope and pray that by beatifying Mandela, by turning him into a secular saint, his strength of character will somehow live on after his death.

Western secular liberals pride themselves in the belief that they have progressed beyond religion. But their adulation of Nelson Mandela and, it has to be said, of his protégé Barack Obama, proves otherwise. Obama and Mandela are both products of Western liberal hagiography.

Even secularists need their saints.

Vincent Cooper is a regular contributor to the Commentator

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