Nelson Mandela in Retrospect

Nelson Mandela in Retrospect

For the people of South Africa, Mandela was the leader they could identify with—one who had suffered alongside them.


At least now, Nelson Mandela won’t have any sleepless nights coping with an unseemly family feud over money and property.

The tribal chiefs of his branch of the Xhosa people have urged the family to follow the lead of Graca Machel, his widely respected third wife of 18 years, the only member of the extended family never accused of seeking publicity or self-promotion. She took loving care of him as he aged until his diseased body gave out after he turned 95.

Also, now, he doesn’t have to listen to the woulda, coulda, shoulda brigade of know-it-alls who were not part of the liberation, but who now invoke his memory only to accuse him simplistically of selling out and other betrayals.

Yes, there is a debate to be had on what was and was not achieved in the first twenty years of South Africa’s hard fought struggle for democracy, but to be dismissive of his courage does history a disservice.

South Africans didn’t vote for neo-liberalism but adopted it when it was foisted on them because they needed help from the West. Some in the ANC supported it for personal material reasons. The ANC focused on winning political power but corporate power there was, as it is here, resistant to deeper change and a corrupting force.

His iconic image has survived all of this noise on the left, the right and in the opportunistic center. Ninety-one heads of state paid respects at his memorial service, and, then, the United Nations General Assembly staged an unprecedented tribute that brought nations of all orientations together to sing his praises.

What African leader has ever enjoyed such adulation and admiration?

No, make that, what modern political leader sentenced to life imprisonment for terrorism ever went from a most wanted man in that sense to the most loved man in the world?

You can count the well-known personalities that live up to his reputation on one finger of one hand.

At the same time, as I explain in my new book, Madiba A to Z: The Many Faces of Nelson Mandela (Seven Stories Press) it is inaccurate to stereotype him as a revolutionary saint, or South African Santa Claus, or as the man who waved a magic want to free his country.

His funeral was the very type of spectacle he would have hated, focusing just on him, and not the collective leadership of his movement he insisted deserved all the credit.

Those of us who watched the memorial on TV were upset by all the attention given to that mentally ill self-styled sign language interpreter who now boasts of being a “fake,” and the amount of airtime devoted to President Obama’s “selfie” photo.

Most Americans don’t know there was a similar criticism in Johannesburg’s Mail & Guardian of South African kids who got caught up in the media frenzy and were endlessly snapping photos of themselves at his home for distribution to their Facebook and Twitter friends.

There was more discussion of being there than what Madiba’s passing meant for the country and the world. They reveled in their ‘fifteen seconds’ of fame by tagging on to a leader who has been in the spotlight for decades.

Don’t get me wrong, Mandela liked adulation, and enjoyed playing his chief-like role. But, he was, at the same time, uncomfortable with the cult of the personality that surrounded him in politics and the media.

He was extremely self-aware. His last book detailed his own confessions of flaws and weaknesses.

Mandela’s personal lawyer and long time friend, George Bizos, who fled to South Africa as a refugee from Greece told me that Madiba hated being worshipped, and for reasons connected to both his sense of personal humility and political convictions: "Hardly ever, in jail when I consulted him or outside, did he take any major decision without saying 'I have a view of the matter but let me discuss it with Walter,' Walter Sisulu, who was in my view the wise man of the struggle.”

Bizos said his friend never spoke in terms of “I,” only we.

And what about all the statues honoring him?

“As his friend I was approached earlier on after his release 'What can we do to please Mr. Mandela?' and I discussed that with him and he said, 'I don’t want things to be named after me, I don’t want statues put up, if they want to please me [and] they have money let them build a school or a clinic and, if they have enough money for both, let them do both.'”

Mandela’s legendary magnanimity did not mean that he couldn’t be tough, even stubborn. In the early days, some activists saw him as a bully with “wild branches” that had to be tamed.

I write about that now sanitized history only to show that he was always a work in progress, the angry young African Nationalist known for womanizing and being a bit of a demagogue who turned into a popular Movement leader. He claimed prison “matured” him and made him more willing to speak with and understand the fears of his enemies.

I was never his friend, but my own immersion in struggle politics, filmmaking and running the South Africa Now public television series allowed me to enjoy a certain access in directing six documentaries about him, and, more recently, covering the making and meaning of the new Mandela mega movie.

I was close enough to observe his leadership style and see some of the contradictions between the power of an individual and the demands of the collective.

In the course of that project, I interviewed members of the original cast of the film and the fight for freedom, including former presidents, prison comrades and guards, activists who have become officials at the top and other who have to survive the deep poverty in township shacks. I was looking for what we don’t know about his life and role.

His ANC comrade Pallo Jordan praised his willingness to change with the times, “Nelson Mandela was the radical, the militant, the lawyer, the MK commander, and the initiator of negotiations and reconciliation. Reducing him to any one of these diminishes the man and his stature.”

Former ANC leader Raymond Suttner recalled, “He changed a lot over the years as his conditions altered; he changed as a human being. We are not dealing with a person whose identity as a man can be reduced to one single, enduring quality.”

These are the shifts I examine in Madiba A to Z.

It became clear that different people had their own views of Mandela, stressing character traits that they admired, and overlooking others, identifying with political decisions they liked and ignoring the ones they didn’t. 

His smile and style provided a comfort factor as if he was a member of their own family. Perhaps that’s why so many South Africans called him “Tata” for father.

For the people of South Africa, Mandela was a leader they could identify with. He was one of them, and had suffered alongside them. They could relate to his story in personal terms, but many recognized that just as they adored him, they needed him. They needed a Mandela to bring them together, to help them find a future together, and symbolize a positive outcome that was anything but clear.

He understood that too—and played that role even when it was in conflict with his more political instincts to promote the collective rather than a personal position. To believe in themselves, many South Africans needed to believe in him, someone who validated their suffering, and had support and recognition from the world beyond the boundaries of South Africa.

Yes, Mandela’s life has been a heroic story lived over decades, some in conditions of secrecy, others as a wanted fugitive and then, for still others, as a very public figure. He never lost his personal signature—whether by dancing/shuffling at rallies, evading his body guards, wearing Indonesian style “Madiba shirts” or calling world leaders like Tony Blair or George Bush to scold them about the war in Iraq.

And, yet, as we remember him, as a man of his times, the largely pre-internet era, we also have to recognize how mass struggle and global solidarity changed South Africa.

His was a non-racial movement that also stands for a non-sexist society. In his touching tribute on the day of the burial, his closest prison comrade, Ahmed “Kathy" Kathrada championed the contributions of all of South Africa’s peoples from many races, cultures and backgrounds.

He often said Mandela did not lead a black revolution but a people’s movement.

After the funeral, the former Archbishop Desmond Tutu gave the ANC a well deserved reprimand for not including more representatives from the Afrikaner and White communities.

As I discovered in my years of going to South Africa—dating back to the 1960’s at age 25—the country has an infectious spirit that, even with all its problems, can teach us about people working together, struggling and winning.

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