The greatness of Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela, as president, hewed to the principles of democracy.
Nelson Mandela, as president, hewed to the principles of democracy.

Nelson Mandela, one of the noblest and most admirable figures of the 20th century, was a friend of Fidel Castro. So what?

David Rockefeller also boasted of the same relationship. Former Venezuelan President Carlos Andrés Pérez, until shortly before seeking exile, thought that Fidel was his friend. After all, when Hugo Chávez in 1992 tried to overthrow him by gunfire and left dozens of people dead on the streets of Caracas, Fidel sent a message of solidarity to CAP and condemned the lieutenant colonel’s fascistic action.

It has been said many times that politics makes strange bedfellows. (Although Groucho Marx said that it isn’t politics but marriage that makes strange bedfellows, but that’s a story for another time.)

Mandela had good reason to be grateful to the Cuban dictator. Fidel had been intensely supportive to those who opposed apartheid, although ending racial segregation was more of an incidental political excuse than Havana’s basic objective.

The essential goal, within the logic of the Cold War, was to conquer territories for the greater glory of Moscow and the little world dominated by the communists. That was why Castro opportunistically switched alliances and sent his troops to consolidate power in Ethiopia and liquidate the Somalis in the Ogaden desert. His struggle was not against white supremacy but for red supremacy.

Nevertheless, to Mandela, or to anyone with a skin hardened by truncheon blows and prison life, for a remote country like Cuba, ruled by a white man, to send hundreds of thousands of soldiers to fight for 14 consecutive years against the interests of South Africa, and sometimes against that country’s army, was something that called for gratitude.

Whatever the reasons — and Cuba’s reasons had to do with the sickly personality of Fidel Castro, a fellow who saw himself as Napoleon (and maybe he was) — the small Caribbean island became a constant source of solidarity and aid.

Mandela should not be judged by his friends, only by his huge stature as a statesman. He was prudent and flexible, as only the great figures of history are. He entered prison as a Marxist, willing to use terrorism to achieve his purposes, and gradually discarded the ideological nonsense and renounced his violent attitude.

He entered prison as a justly angry Lenin and emerged, 27 years later, as a sensible and peaceable Gandhi.

He may have been full of rancor — that would have been natural — but he swallowed it and was capable of shaking hands with his adversary and replace what could have been an infinite chain of vengeance with a simple mechanism of public repentance and a plea for forgiveness.

With Desmond Tutu, he propitiated the creation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Its slogan was very eloquent: “Without pardon there is no future, but without confession there will be no pardon.”

He became friends with the last white ruler, Frederik Willem de Klerk, with whom he shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993, and understood that majority rule could not be used to humiliate and evict from the land the 20 percent of whites who had mistreated his people for centuries.

The whites were just one more tribe among the many that formed the country. Their ancestors came from England or Holland but were (and felt like) South Africans. They should be taken into account because they also held the nation’s economic and human capital.

Mandela did not attempt the collectivist adventure nor did he strip whites of their property to favor blacks, which would have been an immensely popular measure even though it would have ruined the economy.

It is true that he began to govern in 1994, after the toppling of the Berlin Wall and the disappearance of the Soviet Union and almost the entire European communist bloc, but he was prudent enough to understand all that, stay within the law and respect private property and the market.

He didn’t want to remain in power forever. He could have. He was idolized. He managed the country democratically for five years and gave way to other presidents. He knew that, in serious nations, institutions have far more weight than the persons who manage the state.

For all those reasons, he was one of the great politicians of the 20th century. No doubt, the greatest in Africa.

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