The tributes to the character and accomplishments of Nelson Mandela continue to flow even as his failures are assessed.
He famously quipped that he was a sinner who played the part of a saint in public. Addressing a British Labour Party Conference in his post-presidency he described himself as an unemployed pensioner with a criminal record.
Mandela was wary of efforts to elevate him to pedestals. He knew all too well his inner struggles and clay feet.
He was not a moral giant because he was different from the rest of us. He was such a giant because of his capacity for unceasing struggle leading to a certain transcendence over fear, and baser instincts.
His capacity for reconciliation and forgiveness was extraordinary given the personal indignities and deprivations, and the murderous and vicious depravities of the apartheid regime assaulting him and the mass of South Africans.
Arriving on Robben Island in 1964, where he spent 18 of his 27 years incarcerated, Mandela and his fellow political prisoners were urinated on, the beginning of decades of abuse of Prisoner 46664.
He endured the burdens of the struggle as well as the struggles of his private life. His mother died in 1968. His son from his first marriage died in a car accident the following year. He bore his grief in confinement.
In 1969 Mandela’s second wife Winnie was arrested, seized from her home in the presence of her two daughters, aged nine and ten. It was the beginning of a 491-day detention and two trials for Winnie Mandela.
For long periods of her confinement she was kept naked. Often after she menstruated the evidence was grossly apparent for some time because her warders did not allow her proper sanitary measures.
The personal assaults on Mandela and his family mirrored the brutality of apartheid: Denials of basic political and economic rights; a rigid system of racial separation; mass detentions of activists; the killing of scores of demonstrators; the Sharpeville massacre and other atrocities.
After nearly three decades in prison and years of struggle before that, Mandela could be forgiven for a perfunctory sort of reconciliation. But he chose something different, as both an act of moral genius and political shrewdness.
He determined to liberate the mass of South Africans as well as the white minority, especially the Afrikaners, as an act of philosophical conviction and in order to maintain South Africa as a unified multiracial state.
Mandela studied the history and learned the language of his oppressors. His symbolic and other acts of reconciliation were monumental.
He negotiated an end to apartheid, beginning with the likes of President P. W. Botha, who had the blood of many black South Africans on his hands, hands Mandela shook in order to end apartheid.
He visited the widow of the primary architect of apartheid. As portrayed in the film “Invictus”, he embraced rugby, a favourite sport of Afrikaners.
A commentator on the BBC noted that amidst the accolades for Mandela the moral hero, that Mandela the cunning and canny politician should not be lost. Nor can the great man’s policy failures be overlooked.
Mandela himself noted that he did not do enough during his presidency to combat HIV-AIDS, the disease to which his son succumbed. Later, he used his foundation in the fight against the epidemic.
Mandela sold arms to an Indonesian government beset by questions of human rights abuses. He was too soft on a number of dictators.
But it is the question of Mandela’s economic record that is more complex and perhaps open to greater criticism. He introduced economic reforms during his presidency. But were they sufficiently far-reaching to tackle more of apartheid’s entrenched economic inequalities?
During negotiations on a new political system, the ANC enjoyed the upper hand. Less well-known were private meetings on economic matters, arranged by the apartheid government and its main intelligence agency, between Mandela and ANC leaders, and corporate entities and business people like the Oppenheimer diamond magnate family.
The ANC was warned that economic nationalization would lead to mass capital flight. The question remains as to how frightened was the ANC. Was it so anxious that it did not go far enough in pressing for reforms which did not require nationalization?
Mandela, who wrestled with the compromises of politics and governance, struggled with this question during his presidency and afterwards.
Gary Younge argued in the UK Guardian:
“As an activist he [Mandela] had embraced the ANC's Freedom Charter, a statement of core principles, which included such demands as ‘land to be given to all landless people’ and ‘living wages and shorter hours of work’. But as president he emerged into a unipolar world, dominated by neo-liberal globalisation, and his new government had to negotiate its way to stability.
“Arguably, it had a stronger hand in these negotiations than it thought. Mandela could, at that time, have got a better deal for the poor by following a more redistributive agenda.”
Yet, Younge also noted:
“Most criticisms of Mandela as a leader were simplistic because they started from the basis of proving or disproving his sanctity, rather than trying to understand him for who he was: a political leader guiding a developing country through a transitional phase. His singular and considerable achievement was to pave the way for a stable democracy.
“He was never a revolutionary. While other freedom fighters on the continent were embracing socialism and pan-Africanism, Mandela at his trial praised the country's former colonial power. ‘I have great respect for British institutions and for [Britain's] system of justice. I regard the British parliament as the most democratic in the world’.”
Fareed Zakaria lionized Mandela for demitting the presidency after one term, noting that it ensured that South African democracy would not descend into a cult of personality. In The Bahamas, such a cult developed around Sir Lynden Pindling.
It is a matter of curiosity and hypocrisy that some others who lionize Mandela failed in notable ways to adhere to his convictions and legacy. Many on the right who were complicit with or apologetic of various apartheid governments are now falling over one another to praise Mandela.
To his credit, Sir Lynden joined with other Commonwealth leaders at the 1985 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting held here in Nassau to press for the release of Mandela and for economic sanctions as a part of an effort to dismantle apartheid.
At home, Mandela’s legacy suggests comparisons. The ANC, like the PLP, was the political party which spearheaded the movement for majority rule. The PLP created critical national institutions and helped to significantly expand the black middle class.
Yet, what a different political culture that might have developed in the PLP and in the country had Sir Lynden not clung to power for a quarter of a century. He would have proven a greater leader had he demitted office earlier.
Like the PLP, the ANC embarked on a program of political capitalism in which those in political leadership often divided the economic spoils between themselves and their cronies, including the complicity of some in the drug scourge of the 1980s.
Just as the PLP split, so has the ANC, with more splits likely to occur in the latter following Mandela’s death. The ANC will also eventually be defeated at the polls.
But the question is whether such a defeat will help to reform a party whose key figures, like the PLP still, believe that they are entitled to all manner of privileges and spoils.
Today in South Africa, state corruption by various ANC officials is rife, one of the reasons that President Jacob Zuma was booed as he was introduced at the memorial service for Mandela.
Zuma is a target of public outrage. He has saddled the government with a bill of $30 million for the renovation of his private retirement home, despite being some years away from retirement.
One writer suggested of the ANC:
“With Mandela gone, it is likely that its many disillusioned supporters may find it easier to accept that the current ANC and its leadership have veered so far from the values of Mandela it is a different party in all but name …
“The ANC lacks the quality of leadership it needs to renew the party; it is also not open to fresh leadership or ideas. Too arrogant and dismissive of constructive criticism to be genuinely introspective, the party seems unable to reverse the decline.”
Those world leaders who jetted off to pay their last respects to Mandela and who issued statements praising his example, might ask themselves how much or how little their politics and potential legacy comport with his: A man who gave up power in order to secure democracy and a man who did not become greedy and corrupt in the face of access to great wealth.
Mandela demonstrated for all, including those given to deriding politics per se, that the art and the vocation of politics is one of the best hopes for humanity.