By Tom Demerly.
Activist, terrorist, president, communist, freedom fighter, humanitarian, bully, saint and sinner; human. Nelson Mandela’s dossier spans the entire spectrum of social administration and life experience.
Like any complex character, Mandela had many sides. It is tempting to remember him as a great liberator, a fighter for freedom and equality. And, while correct, this would not be a complete accounting of Nelson Mandela’s life.
Mandela won both the Nobel Peace Prize and the Order of Lenin, a seemingly paradoxical set of accolades. That fact alone attests to the complexity of his character, and his political skill. He did prison time and won the Presidency of South Africa. He once quipped to a U.S. president, “In Africa, our leaders go to jail before they become president.”
First, the bad news. Mandela was a terrorist in the strictest sense of the word. He is proof that one man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist. His reign of terror was so conspicuous that in 1965 Amnesty International refused to acknowledge Mandela as a “Prisoner of Conscience” then back-pedaled in 2006 to name him an “Ambassador of Conscience”. Mandela learned and perpetuated the African truth that, “The guys with the guns make the rules.”
But Mandela understood the ends might justify the means in the fallibility of the human experience. He knew the paradoxical meaning of “fighting for peace”. While he is best remembered for his long 27-year prison term it is important to resist romanticizing the violence he brought to bear on South Africa. The victims of his violence bled just as red as the blood coursing through the veins of those he liberated.
And therein lies the reason we should remember Mandela. He was a realist. A man at comfort with the paradoxical cruelty of the human condition. That is also part of the reason why he achieved so much.
It is up to us what we do with Mandela’s legacy and how we decide to remember him. I say we remember Mandela as a common man with titanic burdens thrust upon him. The burdens of, at first, a nation, and then all of mankind. And then we remember that Mandela did not romanticize or philosophize. He set about the untidy ditch digging that “waging peace” truly is on this earth. What made Mandela uncommon was his iron will and tireless endurance to stay the course. And be advised, if you find favor with Nelson Mandela then you ought brush up on your history of Richard Nixon and George Bush. Their dossiers could be argued as roughly analogous.
That is unequivocally part of Mandela’s worth; he verifies that the ends do, indeed, justify the means from the altitude of history.
And as we remember Mandela, we do not abandon the work for a better world, but we embrace the reality of our collective frailty. Because to embrace it is to keep it in close check.