Johannesburg, Dec. 7: Nelson Mandela was deeply respected in his homeland, and almost worshiped by many for his definitive role in ending white rule and installing multiracial democracy.
But he was never above reproach, political observers say.
When Andile Mngxitama, a black-consciousness advocate and frequent critic of Mandela, fired yet another broadside at the former leader before he died — comparing him unfavourably to neighbouring Zimbabwe’s authoritarian President, Robert Mugabe — it certainly caught the attention of South Africa’s political class.
“It’s not an exaggeration to say Mandela’s leadership style, characterised by accommodation with the oppressors, will be forgotten, if not rejected within a generation,” he wrote in June.
Mandela, who led the emancipation of South Africa from white minority rule and served as his country’s first black President, died at 95. That is not, to say the least, the mainstream view here.
“The point is that it was not a popular position, but no one beat him up for it,” said Steven Friedman, a University of Johannesburg political science professor and director of the Center for the Study of Democracy.
“There isn’t this kind of mania about him here that there is in some quarters overseas,” Friedman said of Mandela. “This sanctified image of him has always been more extreme elsewhere in the world than the local attitude.”
Indeed, the picture that the world had of Mandela was as an almost saintly figure, the faultless “father of the nation”. Images of the heartfelt prayer gatherings and candlelight vigils in recent months as South Africans came to terms with his death have reinforced that view.
But Mandela was a politician, among the most transformative of his era, but still a politician. As such, he went through the usual ups and downs that characterise any political career.
“Nelson Mandela was not a saint. We would dishonour his memory if we treated him as if he was one,” Pierre de Vos, a law professor, wrote on Friday in The Daily Maverick, an online magazine in South Africa, arguing that Mandela’s genius lay in his willingness to bend and compromise. “Like all truly exceptional human beings, he was a person of flesh and blood, with his own idiosyncrasies, his own blind spots and weaknesses.”
Sometimes, though, the criticisms came in oblique, roundabout ways.
“Often, criticism of Mandela was disguised as criticism of others,” said Adam Habib, vice-chancellor of the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. “Some of the things that his successor, Thabo Mbeki, was criticised for were actually things that Mandela had initiated or supported.”
Mandela spent 27 years in prison, from August 1962 to February 1990. During this time, a global anti-apartheid campaign took off and his international influence grew exponentially.
Those who were critical of things like the government’s slow reaction to the AIDS crisis or the halting steps towards economic equality often heaped their abuse on Mbeki without acknowledging that Mandela also shared responsibility.
Even officials in the governing party, the African National Congress, would often talk about mistakes that “we” had made, when they were actually Mandela’s own initiatives, Habib said. They simply felt that it would be more palatable among their supporters to disguise the true target of their criticism. Still, as Mandela’s life drew to a close, there were clearly efforts from all political corners to define his legacy and claim a portion of it. And some saw political calculation at work.
“Who really gains from the elevation of a political figure into an untouchable icon?” Anthony Butler, a University of Cape Town political science professor, wrote in his column in the June 28 issue of South Africa’s Business Day paper.
“Not Mandela himself, who does not need our plaudits. The mythmakers who claim that a leader is beyond fault are ultimately seeking to shield a whole political class, and not just one individual, from the public scrutiny upon which democracy depends.”
Mandela was certainly seen here, as he was abroad, as a figure of major historical importance. Even the dwindling bands of white right-wingers who have little good to say about him share that view. But that does not mean he did not draw his share of fire, much of it coming from other corners of the anti-apartheid movement.
Some criticised him for what they saw as an overeagerness to placate the country’s white power elite in the transition to non-racial democracy in the early 1990s and, thereafter, with being more interested in keeping economic power brokers happy, albeit with a few new black faces in the group, than in delivering economic equality to the vast majority of those still living in poverty.
“He has been criticised on chat shows, in newspaper columns and by other political leaders for his emphasis on reconciliation in the early days of the new democracy, saying this often came at the expense of economic equality,” Habib said.
Mandela also drew fire for his failures as an administrator. The skills that helped him transform the nation were not the same ones required to run a government, some argued.
Others questioned his decision to prioritise tranquillity over justice. “The criticism has been that he made too many concessions, while the real victims of apartheid still have to live with the consequences,” Habib said. There were limits, though, to how much criticism the society, and the ruling part, could tolerate — and from whom.
In a 2010 interview with Nadira Naipaul in The London Evening Standard, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela levelled blistering criticisms at her ex-husband. “Mandela let us down,” she is quoted as saying. “He agreed to a bad deal for the blacks. Economically, we are still on the outside.”
Outraged, ANC leaders ordered an investigation and, shortly thereafter, issued a statement calling the entire interview a “fabrication”.