Currently Nelson Mandela, ninety-four, is dying of complications from lung infection. He is on life support, and the world listens to each of his labored breaths. The attention is well deserved. Though his presidency was only from 1994 to 1999, he has deeply influenced South African politics since his twenties. He used his skills as a lawyer to quickly gain power in the African National Congress, the party that fought most prominently against apartheid. He also has charm and clever thinking, which is what made him so alluring to the world.
Mandela was smart and knew when to drop the hammer. As president he explicitly defined his agenda as reconciliation ' not 'justice for blacks'. He implemented affirmative action, but his rhetoric was to achieve equality and get on with living, not to take revenge. He made part of his cabinet respected white officials, along with his trusted black members of the ANC, to assuage white flight and the damage white business elites emigrating would cause to the economy. During his presidency he did something remarkably smart, something most leaders are too detached to their people to do: he encouraged everyone to get behind the all-white Springboks, using the national rugby team to funnel everyone into the same place and take advantage of the inexplicably deep bond sports fans create.
Some, such as Peter Hitchens, critique the global adoration. They wonder why Mandela is so universally praised while other, more achieved people have gone unnoticed. After all, they say, what of his negligence toward the AIDS epidemic in South Africa? Or the high crime rate? Mandela himself has expressed regret at not paying more attention to these areas. I say Mandela had a large plate in front of him. It would not have been right to tell and incumbent Mandela that he can ignore these dire problems because he has enough to deal with already, but it is also not right to expect a man to be an angel. Mandela had what all famous symbols have: a mixture of skill, charm, and being in the right places at the right times. Attributing some of his status to chance does not cheapen it.
Sedition is frightening enough for most people to remain obedient. Not Mandela. The apartheid government constantly pressured the ANC and often arrested its members, Mandela being one of the often arrested. Mandela remained nonviolent for about a decade with the ANC, using urban guerrilla tactics like marches, boycotts, and nation-wide 'don't go to work' days. When the apartheid government defined the ANC as illegal and used force to try and destroy them, there was a choice for Mandela and his colleagues: wait, use more nonviolent pressure, and appeal to other nations, or in turn define the government illegal and use force to destroy them.
Mandela chose to form a military unit, the Umkhunto We Sizwe ' Spear of the Nation. He is controversial in this decision for most people; not for me. What else could be done? Apartheid and American civil rights roughly coincided, but whereas America steadily went up, South Africa went gravely down. Imagine that in the 1960's, instead of acknowledging African Americans, we stripped them of their citizenship and corralled them into parts of the U.S. that we demoted to separate city-states and gave no substantial economic help. What America had done to American Indians yet worse, more final and brutal. Who would have reprimanded African Americans from revolting against such a Hitlerian scheme? No one sensible.
Umkhunto We Sizwe was, undoubtedly, a terrorist organization, but terrorism is not necessarily a bad thing. A decade of organized nonviolence failed; what was needed was organized fear. Fear is a contagion ' we know this. It was a display not just to South Africa, but most importantly the world. 'This is how bad it's got', is what the bomb blasts wrote onto the smoke-covered sky. Would human rights have come to South Africa without it? Surely. As fast? Surely not.
Mandela made a call then: to be swift, to be decisive, to accomplish in order to move on. This is his enduring Politic. In retirement he continues his fight for human rights, traveling the world and speaking to a forever charmed populace. Mandela is, like his critics point out, just a man. But he is a better man than most.