Beware sainthood. Everybody wants a piece of you. Just ask Nelson Mandela.
On the final page of his monumental and intriguing new book, Conversations With Myself, undoubtedly the last he will publish under his name, he offers us this closing message: "One issue that deeply worried me in prison was the false image that I unwittingly projected to the outside world: of being regarded as a saint." And he adds, "I was never one, even on the basis of the earthly definition of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying."
This sacrosanct image was deliberately built by the African National Congress as a way of personalizing the struggle against apartheid in one man who had already become something of a legend, a "Black Pimpernel," during his clandestine years as head of the ANC’s armed wing. It helped that Madiba (his clan name) incarnated an exemplary story of rural and tribal boyhood, adolescent rebellion against discrimination and an increasing commitment, as an adult, to social justice and nonracial politics, all of which culminated in the 1963–64 Rivonia trial, where he and seven of his co-defendants were sentenced to life imprisonment. Mandela’s story became even more of a model when, over the next twenty-seven years, he withstood with exceptional nobility the most extreme forms of humiliation exacted upon him and his faraway family.
If Prisoner 46664 could not but acquiesce in this inevitable promotion of his heroic persona during the Manichaean battle against an oppressive regime, once he was liberated into a shifty world of nuances and illusions, Mandela was to discover how difficult, almost impossible, it was to undermine his own aura. His life story turned out to be foundational during the grueling transition to democracy, when he often had to intervene with one side or the other to avoid chaos and further bloodshed.
One needs to recognize—as Madiba incessantly does—that the crucial protagonists of this emancipatory epic were the people of South Africa, inspired and led by countless militants, most of them anonymous and many of them unrewarded and forgotten once democracy was attained. But it is safe to suggest that this is one of those cases where one individual changes the path of history. The end of the racist South African regime is simply inconceivable without the moral capital and charisma Mandela had accumulated during his prison years. As a symbol of dignity and resistance he was, well, irresistible; but the compassion he showed once he was released, the ability to speak to his enemies and bring them to the table, his disposition to forgive (but never to forget) the terror inflicted on him and his people, his willingness to see the good in others, to trust their deepest sense of humanity and honor, turned him into the sort of ethical giant that our species desperately needed in a petty era of devastation and greed. Such a halo can, however, be just as confining as an island where every move and word is guarded.