Gwynne Dyer: Nelson Mandela was no saint

The Catholic Church consecrates saints with less pomp and sentimentality than was lavished on Nelson Mandela during the week-long media orgy that we have just been through. We haven’t seen such a ridiculous spectacle since...oh, since the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy three weeks ago. But at least the Kennedy orgy was over a lot faster—and nobody compared him to Gandhi or Christ.

Pity the poor journalists who had to grind out endless stories about what was hardly a news event at all—95-year-old man dies after lengthy illness—and inevitably ended up sounding like sycophants and fools. True, the world needed (or at least wanted) a political icon of perfect virtue, but the beatification of Nelson Mandela took much too long.

The problem was that everybody in the media knew well in advance that Mandela was dying, and had time to invest millions in preparing to “cover” the event. Hotel rooms and telecom facilities were booked, crews and anchors were deployed, and the expense had to be justified by round-the-clock, wall-to-wall coverage of funeral orations, vox pop interviews, and talking heads.

And of course all the world’s politicians showed up for the greatest photo op of the decade, including many who had condemned Mandela as a terrorist before he pulled off a peaceful transition from apartheid to majority rule in South Africa. But now that the babble of rhetoric has died down and just before the myth was takes over completely, let us talk honestly about who he was and what he accomplished.

Mandela understood that South Africans needed an icon, not a mere mortal man, as the founding hero of their new democracy, but he had a strong sense of irony. It would have got plenty of exercise as he watched the local politicos and the foreign dignitaries strew metaphorical flowers on his grave.

The man whom they buried at Qunu on Sunday was arrested by the white minority regime in 1963, probably on a tip from the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. He was the head of the African National Congress’s military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), at the time, and continued to back its campaign of sabotage, bombing and attacks on military and police targets throughout his 27 years in prison.

If the South African Communist Party is to be believed, he was a member of its central committee at the time of his arrest. It was a different time, when U.S. President Ronald Reagan could declare that the apartheid regime was “essential to the Free World,” and the ANC’s main international supporters were the Soviet Union and Cuba. Mandela might have ended up as a man of violence if he had not gone to prison.

Instead, in prison, he had the time to develop his ideas about reconciliation and persuade the other ANC leaders who were also confined to Robben Island of their value. By the time he came out of prison in 1990, he had become the man that everybody knew they could trust—including the whites.

During the next four years, when he and F.W. De Klerk, the last white president, negotiated the transfer of power from the white minority to the black majority, he really was the indispensable man. His commitment to reconciliation was so visible and genuine that whites were willing to do what had once seemed inconceivable: to hand over power before they absolutely had to.

If you want to know what South Africa would have looked like if the whites had clung to power down to the last ditch, look at Syria today. But it was not only Mandela who saved the country from that fate: they gave the Nobel Peace Prize to both Mandela and De Klerk, because the miracle could not have happened if De Klerk had not had the will and the skill to lead his own Afrikaner tribe out of power.

Then, after the first free election in 1994, Mandela became the president, and frankly he wasn’t very good at it. He had no executive experience, nor much aptitude for it.

Thabo Mbeki did most of the hard administrative work behind the scenes during Mandela’s presidency (1994-1999), while Mandela greeted visiting celebrities, hobnobbed with the rich and famous, and solicited donations for various causes that included, unfortunately, his own extensive family. He was not personally corrupt, but he was involved in a few dubious deals, and he tolerated corruption in others.

But he did his country one last big favour: he retired at the end of his first term rather than clinging to power. He was already 81 years old at that time, but lesser men (Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, for instance) have not let that stop them. And he even had a few good years left to enjoy his family before age began to drag him down.

He was not a saint; he was just a man. But he was the right man at the right time.

Comments (13) Add New Comment
Unkown somebody
Shut up you bloody idiot,you not a saint too,who are you to say who is and isn't a saint?you haven't fought for anything,we don't see anyone honoring you for any contribution you've had to society,thing about you journalists you've got a lot to say about everything and nobody really gives a shit what you think.
13
68
Rating: -55
Jim Clarke
Well, actually, I’m pretty interested in what Mr. Dyer has to say, because often he offers analyses or ideas that I haven’t thought of or seen elsewhere. In this case, nothing earthshaking, but thoughtful and interesting.

I don’t think he would claim to have achieved anything comparable to what Nelson Mandela did; nor can any other twentieth-century politician except perhaps Mikhail Gorbachev. The achievement is all the more remarkable considering that Mandela didn’t come to his views poof! from the beginning.
38
11
Rating: +27
Bruce
The fact that Mandela "was not a saint; he was just a man" makes his accomplishments even more impressive.
29
11
Rating: +18
Anon
Saint or just a good man who changed the lives of millions. Close enough, eh?
14
4
Rating: +10
dude91
Forgot to mention: De Klerk was deputy President under Mandela, South African economy grew 4%~ annually under Mandela with little deviation from neo-liberalist economic policies.
5
7
Rating: -2
Russ Hunt
I've never seen anything like the excess of adulation expended on Mandela. Every writer with a keyboard entered the cliche sweepstakes, and every politician sucked up to the icon, trying to look a bit more iconic by association. (Even Dyer, now . . . )
12
8
Rating: +4
sjsmith
I agree 100% with his views.
12
4
Rating: +8
IC
"And of course all the world’s politicians showed up for the greatest photo op of the decade"

After being freed from prison,Nelson Mandela traveled to Cuba in 1991,for one of his first photo ops with Castro: .

http://www.democracynow.org/blog/2013/12/10/nelson_mandela_fidel_castro_...

Only five world leaders invited to speak at Nelson Mandela’s memorial. Cuba's Castro was one of them. Cuba played a pivotal role in ending apartheid:
http://www.democracynow.org/2013/12/11/the_secret_history_of_how_cuba

"including many who had condemned Mandela as a terrorist before he pulled off a peaceful transition from apartheid to majority rule in South Africa."

The ANC was removed from the US terrorism watch list in 2008

"South Africa would have looked like if the whites had clung to power down to the last ditch, look at Syria today."

Syria is just a civil war between some rebels and it's government - South Africa was fighting a war with Zambia , Mozambique , Cuba and Angola. South Africa didn't develop nuclear weapons to fight ANC rebels.

Eric Margolis wrote 'compared to today’s world leaders, Mandela does looks like a saint' :
http://ericmargolis.com/2013/12/mandela-terrorist-or-saint/
7
7
Rating: 0
I Chandler
"But at least the Kennedy orgy was over a lot faster—and nobody compared him to Gandhi or Christ."

Funny - some consider the Kennedy orgy as 'hatchet jobs pure and simple' - The founder of Salon,David Talbot, complained that JFK "has been entombed under 1,000 layers of junk history ... JFK, released back in 1991, was the last movie to offer a brave interpretation of the Kennedy tragedy. For his efforts, Stone was so savagely pilloried, he still hasn’t fully recovered his reputation"

http://www.salon.com/2011/04/01/kennedys_in_hollywood/

On the 50th anniversary of JFK's death, his nephew recalled JFK's attempts to halt the war machine - his dad, RFK became the country’s first conspiracy theorist after his brother’s assassination:
http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/john-f-kennedys-vision-of-peac...

"We haven’t seen such a ridiculous spectacle since...oh, since the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy three weeks ago."

I just remember ( of the 50th anniversary ), the Mayor of Dallas complaining that his city has suffered for fifty years - forever known as the City of Hate. Oliver Stone talked about Kennedy's legacy:

http://www.democracynow.org/2013/11/5/oliver_stone_on_50th_anniversary_of
8
4
Rating: +4
Dennis Ryan
Nelson Mandela was no saint; well thank God for that! As a former Catholic, I've seen people elevated to sainthood that definitely seem more political than spiritual. Mandela made his mistakes and was more icon than anything else, but he's exactly what South Africa needed. I think his spiritual growth made the difference between bloody civil war and peaceful transition.
3
4
Rating: -1
HE
Mandela did nothing for his own people. Personally, being African, my hero is not Nelson Mandela but Robert Mugabe. Corporate media hail Mandela because he did nothing to change the Apartheid economic system which continues to this day. Mugabe did that! He redistributed land to 400,000 initially owned by few white minorities. That is why you hate Mugabe and love Mandela!
3
9
Rating: -6
McRocket
To 'Unknown Sonebody'.

You can always tell when someone is emotionlly unbalanced about a subject, when they don't have the emotional strength to tolerate conflicting views.
Not only do you hate what he says - which is your right - but you are trying to shut him up and deny him his right to free speech.
Typical.
9
4
Rating: +5
JMW
@HE

The reason we hate Mugabe is the reign of terror since he took power. It's the undemocratic rigging of elections. It's the use of death squads to enforce election votes, raping, killing, maiming, and so on and so on. If Mugabe had redistributed land and then stepped down, he'd probably be considered today to be a great man, and if Zimbabwe had gone down the same sinkhole, he'd be a great man whose country wasted his contribution.

Instead, Mugabe fell in love with power and refuses to give it up and will stop at NOTHING to keep it. That's why we hate him.
9
7
Rating: +2
Add new comment
To prevent automated spam submissions leave this field empty.