I’ve been seeing a fair amount of criticism of Nelson Mandela over the past few days. Some of it is just the expected contrarian reaction to all the overwhelmingly positive obituaries and remembrances. Some of it is just the inanity we ought to expect from the inane.
But some of it is misguided in a way that demands a response.
What I have in mind is the brand of criticism, like the above cartoon, that says, “I’m going to explain something about South Africa that all the apologists for Mandela don’t know: South Africa wasn’t fixed by Mandela.”
Now it might be the case that these critics honestly want to inform us that South Africa isn’t exactly the “Rainbow Nation” of Mandela’s and Tutu’s vision because they think we don’t know this. Or they want to educate us on persistent economic inequalities because they’re pretty sure they’re the only ones who’ve spent any time thinking about South Africa. Or maybe they believe that only those former politicians who solve every problem or fulfill every promise ought to be lionized. Or they themselves don’t understand or accept that Mandela’s release and the subsequent political changes in South Africa were owed to compromise rather than outright victory. Or they could think that heroism means never making compromises or bad choices.
But here’s the thing: It’s possible to know a whole bunch about South Africa, including all the problems that weren’t fixed by Mandela and even the problems that have arisen in the decades since his release from prison, and still conclude that he was a towering moral figure on the world stage; that he almost certainly meant more to South Africans, black and white, than anyone else ever will; that things might have gone terribly wrong for South Africa if Mandela hadn’t rejected vengeance when he walked out of prison or hadn’t chosen to step down from power after one term in office; that it’s distinctly impressive to see him embraced today by many of those same people who once rejected him as a radical, given how little he moderated his radicalism; and that (along with Desmond Tutu) his vision of justice was responsible for a popularization of the whole concept of restorative justice on a global scale.
It’s easy to criticize, especially if you’ve just spent a few hours on Wikipedia and learned something about Mandela or South Africa that you didn’t know last week, but if someone like Mandela doesn’t made the cut of impressive political figures for you, I submit that it might be your standards, not our opinion of Mandela, that needs to be reevaluated.