I met Nelson Mandela only once, but I had an opportunity between 1996 and 1999 to observe firsthand — as a midlevel U.S. diplomat in South Africa — the effect the man had on his country.
Popular commentary in the U.S. surrounding Mandela’s death tends to reflect those aspects of Mandela important to us or those that we wanted to see. He was a complex man, however, whose life contained paradoxes and contradictions. His personal and professional lives were marked by personal sacrifice.
He fled to Johannesburg as a youth to escape an arranged marriage. He endured two painful divorces that were arguably victims of his commitment to public service before marrying his third wife, Graca Machel, in 1998. He mid-wifed his country’s birth as a multiracial, free and democratic society and, in 1999, gave up power willingly. Still, there are several myths about Mandela that do not do him justice and do not reflect the full picture of his life.
Myth 1: Mandela was committed to nonviolence. The popular version of Mandela is that of the Great Reconciler, a role he played so effectively after his release from prison following 27 years in 1990. In his youth, however, Mandela was widely considered a firebrand, even by the the African National Congress’ leadership. As a student, he was an activist who was not afraid to take a more radical approach.
Even before apartheid became formally enshrined in law in 1950, Mandela was expelled for leading student demonstrations at Fort Hare University. He was not satisfied with the ANC’s tradition of petitioning for change, and he promoted a more confrontational approach, the Defiance Campaign of the 1950s. The South African regime responded with violence to growing social protest, culminating in the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre.
Mandela pressed the ANC to abandon its doctrine of nonviolence and helped to establish the ANC’s armed wing. The Spear of the Nation, which Mandela led, carried out sabotage attacks largely against the regime’s infrastructure, although there were civilian casualties. Here was a man who believed freedom and democracy were worth fighting for. He was not Mahatma Gandhi.
Myth 2: Mandela was anti-communist. For most of his life Mandela was a dyed-in-the-wool socialist. He was briefly a member of the South African Communist Party, which he saw as the ANC’s ally in Africa’s anti-colonial struggle. Although at times suspicious of South Africa’s communists, he supported the ANC’s organic alliance with the SACP and trade unions that endured for decades.
For a majority of his life, Mandela saw the West as an antagonist and communist states as natural allies. After coming to power, Mandela defended his friendship with Fidel Castro. His suspicion of the West, where the media made him a celebrity, is largely overlooked or discounted, yet this remains a strong theme in South Africa today. In fact, Mandela had virtually no contact with Western leaders and officials until his release from Robben Island. By that time, he was already over 70.
When he assumed the South African presidency in 1994, Mandela discovered that his vision of a prosperous, multiracial society would be put at risk if investors and property owners (then largely white) perceived a shift away from a market economy. The collapse of communism in Europe also facilitated a shift away from socialism. Mandela’s epiphany occurred when he made public remarks early in his presidency about nationalization of parts of the economy and witnessed the negative impact on the Johannesburg stock market. He quickly reversed course and made a point to reassure international investors. Mandela blended pragmatism and principle.
Myth 3: Mandela single-handedly led the anti-apartheid struggle.
This is a popular notion that may have bothered Mandela more than any other. During his 27 years in prison, Mandela was effectively excluded from holding a leadership position in the ANC even as he became the international symbol of the ANC’s struggle.
Readers need only Google the names of Oliver Tambo or Walter Sisulu, among others, to learn about the role Mandela’s contemporaries played in leading the ANC and shaping Mandela’s own political persona. Together these young lions “radicalized” the ANC in 1949 and undertook the defiance campaign in the 1950s. In his 2003 eulogy for Sisulu, Mandela credited the former with teaching him the importance of outreach and partnership. He relied on Sisulu and Tambo for advice and counsel.
As we mark the passing of one of our era’s heroic figures and reflect on his legacy, let us not simplify the man and history. He would want to be remembered for the totality of his life, for the journey and transformations he made, and for the character he displayed — not least the liberating power of forgiveness and reconciliation that he embodied.
Kenneth M. Hillas is a retired senior foreign service officer who teaches a graduate seminar in global politics at the University of Maine in Orono.