Mandela: icon, hero and flawed human

Sunday, December 08, 2013

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CAPE TOWN, South Africa (AP) — Force of nature. Father of all nations. A messiah of our times.

These glowing tributes to Nelson Mandela come from South Africans who feel he made their lives better by bringing them freedom, bringing them together and — perhaps that most difficult of actions — showing them how to forgive.

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Yet the man described so often as a gift, an icon, a legend and even a saint was part of a wider resistance movement and was flawed like any other human. Amid the global outpouring of emotion since his death Thursday night in his Johannesburg home at the age of 95, to harp on faults, personal and political, in one of the transcendent figures of the 20th century seems like heckling from the peanut gallery. This was a man whose capacity for sacrifice and compassion as the premier symbol of the anti-apartheid campaign places him among the world’s greats.

But Mandela was aware of his failings, and he struggled to be recognised as a man rather than a representative of an immaculate ideal. He said many times that he was part of a collective that sought to eliminate the cruel system of white rule, even as understandably proud South Africans, some with commercial intents, craft more portraits, statues and commemorative knickknacks in his image and name more roads, buildings, schools and hospitals after him.

Retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu praised Mandela for reconciling the races as South Africans emerged from apartheid and elected the former prisoner as their president in 1994 elections, defying grim predictions of racial war. However, unlike most other prominent figures who paid tribute, Tutu briefly noted Mandela’s weaknesses.

“He retained in his Cabinet underperforming, frankly incompetent ministers,” Tutu said of Mandela. “This tolerance of mediocrity arguably laid the seeds for greater levels of mediocrity and corruptibility that were to come.”

He said Mandela exhibited a “steadfast loyalty to his organisation and to some of his colleagues who ultimately let him down.”

Tutu was referring to the African National Congress, the main liberation movement and current ruling party that is the front-runner ahead of national elections next year. It has lost some support because of corruption scandals and poor service delivery in a country still plagued by economic inequality, reflecting disillusionment that things have not turned out as well as many hoped when Mandela was at the helm.

The remarks highlight how Mandela’s record as an activist and prisoner before the end of apartheid, captured in his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom, is widely known and admired. His record as president is less scrutinised.

It is too much to expect that Mandela would set a new South Africa, traumatised by decades of a social system that denied the vote, equal education and other basic rights to the black majority, on a path to success in just one five-year presidential term. His retirement from politics was seen as a trademark gesture of modesty, a spurning of the cult of the individual. Many South Africans, though, regret he did not take the country further forward with his moral authority by serving another term.

Criticism comes, too, from South Africans who believe Mandela and his allies in the early 1990s were too eager to accommodate the white minority which still dominates the economy. When ANC leaders negotiated an end to apartheid, they did not insist on restructuring of the kind that happened in Zimbabwe after independence, fearing it could destabilise the country.

Mandela told business leaders in Cape Town shortly before the 1994 election that the country was struggling with high unemployment, low investment and growth rates and an income distribution system that was “terribly skewed” toward whites.

That imbalance is still in force, according to Julius Malema, the expelled head of the ANC’s youth league and now leader of the opposition Economic Freedom Fighters party. The upstart party seeks to harness the poor’s discontent, and Malema has said it is time to redistribute wealth.

“All evidence of the past 20 years reveal the simple reality that those who had to take forward the struggle for economic freedom did not do so,” the party said in a tribute to Mandela, in an indirect criticism of the revered leader.

Mandela’s decision after the end of white rule to stick with apartheid-era allies with poor human rights records, including Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi and Cuba’s Fidel Castro, drew criticism in the West. Decades earlier, his decision to endorse violence as a last-ditch means of fighting apartheid was seized upon by the white overseers of race-based repression as evidence that he was a terrorist. The ANC’s armed wing was later involved in bombings that killed civilians.

Mandela’s children have talked about how he was absent as a father, not just as a prisoner of apartheid but later, when politics and public duty claimed his time. He was divorced twice, splitting with second wife Winnie Mandela in 1996.

Ahmed Kathrada, an activist who was imprisoned with Mandela, said his old friend was deeply worried while in jail at unwittingly projecting a saint-like image to the world.

Kathrada also quoted Mandela as saying: “I wanted to be like an ordinary human being with virtues and vices.”

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