Former South African President Nelson Mandela. (AP Photo/Pool-Theana Calitz-Bilt)
The annual celebrations—for once, the appropriate word—surrounding Nelson Mandela’s birthday last week bore an extra note of bitter-sweetness this year, amid conflicting reports about the ex-president’s health. “Madiba is always with us,” one 12-year old girl told The New York Times. “He gave us freedom.”
What is often lost, now that Mandela has achieved the status of wise elder, is the extent to which his victories are owed to significant streaks of both radicalism and Realpolitik running throughout his career—first as a principled revolutionary and later as very much the quintessential consensus-building politician.
The most recent Nation articles on Mandela highlighted this paradox. In January 2011, the Chilean-American author Ariel Dorfman wrote about how Mandela expressed concern, in his newly published memoir Conversations With Myself, about being remembered as an otherworldly ethical actor totally separate from difficult, still-unsettled political questions.
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.
A tour through articles about Mandela from The Nation’s archives elucidates the same point, helping us to consider the 95-year-old Mandela as a man who, Dorfman wrote, “fortunately for himself and the world, is not, after all, a saint.”
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The first mention of Mandela in our pages came in January 1966, when the white South African anthropologist Hilda Kuper reviewed No Easy Walk to Freedom, a collection of writings and speeches by the Robben Island prisoner. Kuper called Mandela “a man of courage and deep integrity, a tragic and noble figure,” and wrote that “his impressive and sincere speech” endorsing armed struggle—while defending himself against charges of treason at the Rivonia Trial in 1964—“is not that of a man who enjoyed violence, but of one driven to violence as the last resort.” Kuper closed her piece with an impassioned critique that represented the spirit of the first major international stirrings against apartheid, in the middle of the 1960s: