Nelson Mandela: The evolution of a hero

Jaime Weinman recalls a time when many world leaders kept their distance from the South African leader

by Jaime Weinman

(AP Photo/ Gillian Allen, File)

When Margaret Thatcher died earlier this year, Nelson Mandela’s friends and colleagues had to search hard for nice things to say about her. The best the African National Congress’s Pallo Jordan could come up with was “Whatever Thatcher did, she didn’t put him in jail, did she?” The U.K. Prime Minister was perhaps the best known of the world leaders who, while critical of apartheid (she called it “utterly repulsive and detestable”), opposed tough sanctions against the country and were suspicious of Mandela.

Apartheid is now often remembered as a moment of moral clarity where the world banded together against a clear injustice, but it wasn’t always so clear at the time: in a press conference at the October 1987 Commonwealth Summit in Vancouver, Thatcher famously called the ANC “a typical terrorist organization.” With the Cold War still raging, Nathan Abrams Director of Graduate Studies at Bangor University, Wales, says that for some conservatives, “Apartheid South Africa was a valuable bulwark against Communism,” and Mandela was seen as someone who could potentially jeopardize that status, and therefore victory in the Cold War.

Thatcher’s U.S. counterpart, Ronald Reagan, accordingly announced that “the South African Government is under no obligation to negotiate the future of the country with any organization that proclaims a goal of creating a Communist state,” and the U.S. State Department placed Mandela on a terrorist watch list, from which he was not officially removed until 2008. When the U.S. Congress finally passed anti-Apartheid legislation, it was over Reagan’s veto. One Congressman, Dick Cheney, later saw his campaign for U.S. Vice President threatened by his old votes against such legislation; he told ABC’s Sam Donaldson that “nobody was for keeping Nelson Mandela in prison,” but he opposed “formal recognition of the ANC.”

Not that there was any lockstep conservative view on the question of South Africa. Though a Thatcher admirer, Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney was a passionate supporter of sanctions, which he called the only way of “dealing with a regime that is rooted in evil.” But his attempts to persuade other conservative leaders, such as Thatcher and Reagan, were generally unsuccessful. When the Thatcher government released a statement rejecting parts of a Commonwealth resolution against apartheid, Mulroney lost his temper with her, telling reporters: “I think it’s against British fair play.”

If world leaders sometimes kept their distance from Mandela, some lower-ranking conservatives were openly hostile to him, doubting that he could ever become a democratic leader. Abrams, who has written a book on the influential neoconservative journal Commentary, says that the magazine “ridiculed the move toward sanctions,” and had a penchant for “crudely depicting Nelson Mandela as a relentlessly and dangerously radical Communist.” And the Rev. Jerry Falwell, the leader of the Moral Majority, proclaimed in 1985 that he would urge “millions of Christians to buy Krugerrands” to show their support of the Botha regime. And British MP Terry Dicks famously accused Thatcher of knuckling under too much to Mandela, saying: “How much longer will the Prime Minister allow herself to be kicked in the face by this black terrorist?”

Once the collapse of apartheid actually took place, Mandela failed to live up to these predictions of doom. Many of his opponents simply dropped the issue; “remarkably,” wrote neoconservative historian Jacob Heilbrunn, “almost no attention has been devoted to the history of the conservative defense of South Africa.” Even Cheney said that Mandela’s organization had “mellowed and moderated its views in significant ways,” and that Mandela had proven himself to be “a great man. He deserves an enormous amount of credit for the transformation of South Africa.” Mandela’s elevation to heroism was so complete that it was almost possible to forget that he was ever controversial.

Almost. There have occasionally been flashbacks to the old days when Mandela’s greatness was not considered a settled issue. In 2001, when the Canadian House of Commons presented a motion to make the South African leader an honorary citizen, Alberta MP Rob Anders opposed it, telling the CBC that Mandela had become “the politically correct kind of ‘lib’ left poster-boy of today.” When Mandela died twelve years later, Anders unrepentantly referred a reporter to a blog post by conservative columnist David Horowitz, who opened by saying “Mandela began as a terrorist and never turned his back on monsters like Arafat and Castro.” As for Mandela’s ‘80s opponents, Abrams says, “I am not aware whether any of them ever admitted they had been wrong about this.”




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Nelson Mandela: The evolution of a hero

  1. This comment was deleted.

    • All of that does not absolve you of the evil of oppressing another human being, making him a second class citizen in his own country and denying him the right to determine his own future through elective process. You did most of those things for your own self interest. You did not leave your country to go to South Africa, because you had benevolent intentions; you saw your self interest and was determined to advance it regardless of any moral consideration. You were willing to kill and imprison those who challenged your immorality. War between the Zulus and the Matabele? The French, Germans and British did that too! All Canadian immigrants from Europe, Asia, Africa etc. cannot use those excuses you gave to justify putting Canadian aboriginals under the kind of system South Africa had. NO. It was morally wrong then, and it is morally wrong now.

      All that is history and our ancestors did not know much better. Let us put all that attempt at justification behind us, and find modern ways to build societies where no man is oppressed.

      • It is impossible to free one society without oppressing another.

        You obviously have never witnessed it – or if you have you have taken one side over another.

        “find modern ways to build societies where no man is oppressed.”

        LOL

        Good luck!

        • “wisdom” from someone who supports Rob Ford and opposed Nelson Manela.

        • You’re like, a secret writer for NOW or something and just in disguise as a craaaaaazy loony right-winger, right?

    • please end this racist bs, macleans.

      • Wondered when someone would drop that card – nothing racist here at all – however as a non white I do not know how I can be called racist – if it is me you are talking to – after all – atleast in Canada – you have to be white to be racist – all others can declare victim status.
        LOL
        A cheap and over used word that no longer has any meaning

        • It has meaning….and it’s not about a card game….you just don’t like being called what you are….a racist.

        • You are a racist, plain a simple. An angry one at that. Most people try to work through their biases -racial, SES, gender… but your only goal here is to act as a troll to stir the pot. Sad.

    • Obviously you are unaware of the large civilizations in Africa that existed long before the ‘west’ did.

    • For some people the white man’s burden is just never over. You could write pretty much the same diatribe aimed at the Aboriginal people of this country, this continent. I note the one thing you didn’t apologize for was jailing and killing so many of them, in order to make sure they truly understood why you were doing all those good things for them. And no doubt they should apologize to you for wanting those things, but as free men and women, equals not merely ungrateful savages.

  2. Was Mandela a saint? Not even close (although over the next week people will make him one)…however, to go from that fact to effectively supporting a flagrantly racist regime is despicable…Anders should be booted out of caucus…history has proven him wrong

  3. History – making right wing extremists look stupid since…ever.

  4. Some people were…and still are….so terrified of communism [not to mention black men] that they will go along with anything….in this case the enslavement of 20 million people.

    Luckily, Canada had PM Mulroney….and he went to bat against enormous opposition for Mendala and the end of apartheid.

  5. SA got Mandela and has done well. S Rhodesia got Mugabe and has become a failed state. leaders make a difference! and both were boxers in their youth!

  6. The single biggest problem that Africa faces is that the poorly educated masses (and a good number of well educated people) are prone to hero worship. As a result of this propensity to idolize leaders, democracy fails and the state becomes all powerful. The old saying: “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”.
    As an Advocate of the High Court of South Africa, I have some insight into these matters.
    The vast majority of Africans of all races and nationalities live in poverty by western standards. Why is this so?
    Are Africans lazy? No, Africans are worked to death! You need only look at the masses waiting for taxis to go to work at 5am every morning to see that this is so.
    Are Africans stupid? Far from it! Africans are extremely creative and are well known for their ability to improvise and learn new languages and subjects very rapidly.
    Is the land itself unable to generate prosperity? This is obviously not the case. Africa is awash with natural wealth. Nigeria is one of the largest oil producers in the world, yet the majority of Nigerians are very poor indeed. South Africa, has vast natural resources, yet South Africans are becoming poorer by the day.
    So what is going wrong? One word answer: “corruption”.
    Not only does corruption mean that the countries wealth does not reach the majority of the people, but it means that the people will never receive the services from government that they are paying for: medical, education, and security!
    Now, corruption is fed from the top down. It occurs when the leaders are not held accountable for the actual performance of the country. The leaders, in turn, secure the loyalty of their deputies by turning a blind eye to self-serving corrupt practices. The deputies in turn spawn corrupt practices throughout their respective departments.
    If the leaders were ordinary human beings, the public would hold them accountable. Unfortunately political leaders throughout Africa are worshiped by their people and this invariably results in an abscence of accountability and corruption, which results in extreme poverty and anguish.
    Now, democracy and accountability is not something that is created by adopting a constitution. Democracy is something that every citizen must contribute towards continuously. This in itself is not easy, and sometimes it requires great personal sacrifice on the part of individuals who witness a wrong. For example, Edward Snowden has been forced into exile by the US government for revealing that the NSA was acting unconstitutionally by spying on its own people. The institutions of democracy are constantly under attack from those in power. It is the citizen’s duty to be vigilant and stand up against this at all levels of government. When George Washington was asked what type of State he had created, he replied, ” a republic, if you can keep it.”.
    So, looking at any political leader as a hero, is bound to lead to corruption and poverty.
    Nelson Mandela was undoubtably a very intelligent man who should be admired and remembered with fondness by the people of South Africa, but he was no saint. He was not a pacifist as the world media now seems to claim. He was the leader of the ANC’s armed wing. It is true that the National Party government offered him his freedom if he would renounce the terror campaign that the ANC was carrying out. At the same time, we must remember that the National Party government, along with many accomplices of all races, was enslaving the black population of South Africa, and terrorizing the majority of the country’s population – including the white population – on a daily basis, so to the extent that the ANC’s terror campaign was effective in bringing an end to National Party rule, it may have been justifiable. My point is that we should not idolize Mandela, or anyone else for that matter.
    It was revealed recently by irrefutable witnesses that Ghandi used to insist that he share his bed with naked girls as young as 10 years of age every night – the reason he gave was that he was able to test his resolvebto remain celibate by exposing himself to temptation. Ghandi was also a hero, and the Indian people are also very poor indeed.
    In rich successful countries, on the other hand, the general population focuses on finding fault with their leaders and institutions. I cannot think of a single prime minister of the UK, or Australia, or any other successful country who has been accorded the sort of status that Mandela or Ghandi were accorded, yet the majority of western leaders have run governments that have created employment opportunities, provided a high standard of health care, free education, and security for their citizens. The hallmark of a successful democracy may be a country where there are very few clothes, tablecloths, and statues in the image of the politicians.
    Politicians are a necessary evil and it is every citizens duty to oppose them and keep them in check, not to worship them.
    Let us therefore remember Nelson Mandela as a man with many faults, who may have wronged many people, but who nevertheless was instrumental in bringing about the end of a despicable ideology. That should be sufficient accolades for any politician.

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