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Nelson Mandela: Great for What He Did - And What He Didn't Do

26/06/2013 13:06 BST | Updated 25/08/2013 10:12 BST
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At this writing, Nelson Mandela is still in critical condition. Accolades for him have started coming in. Many of us are reflective.

Mandela has been a leader of remarkable courage, of stamina and resilience. These qualities started to show early in school, as Mandela suffered penalties and expulsions, the result of his steady anti-apartheid conviction. He went to law school, passed the bar and helped to establish South Africa's most prestigious black law firm. No small feat, these accomplishments in those days.

Later, of course, he would serve 27 years hard labour. In his last years behind bars -- he was finally released in 1990 -- Mandela had been offered freedom, if only he would publicly renounce armed struggle. He refused.

Like many great leaders, Mandela was single-minded. This was not always to his credit. He made common cause during the apartheid years with many a tyrant. He praised Libya's ruthless and eccentric autocrat Muammar Qaddafi, for example, once explaining that "Our attitude toward any country is determined by the attitude of that country to our struggle." Mandela added, "We have no time to be looking into the internal affairs of other countries."

Mandela also flirted with Soviet Communism. There's a debate about this that never seems to end. This month's New York Review of Books has Bill Keller of the New York Times accusing Mandela critics on this point of "Red-baiting nonsense." In Keller's view, Mandela may have been at one time "a close partner of the South African Communist Party," but he was "not a Communist in the values he upheld, the politics he practiced, the constitution he negotiated, or the presidency he held." That's all true -- at least in the end, and that's what counts. But it's also true that Mandela had run with allies who considered the Soviet model a worthy template for South Africa's future and that he himself had toyed with ideas of a state-run economy, including the nationalisation of major industries.

No matter, though -- all towering figures in history have had their flaws and their blind spots. Mandela was a truly great leader, not merely for all that he did to lead South Africa out of apartheid, but also for one exceptionally important thing he chose not to do.

He was steadfast while in prison in refusing to renounce armed struggle, but once apartheid was at its end Mandela became equally steadfast in rejecting violence and forgoing revenge. Ending injustice is not the same thing as defending justice. Indeed, not every revolution leads to pluralism, tolerance and respect for diversity, to put it mildly. The most glaring contemporary example is that of Iran, where a popular movement led to the toppling of the cruel Shah in 1979, only to see the country's autocrat rule replaced by a theocratic tyranny that has turned out to be far crueller and menacing, both for the people of Iran and the region.

Mandela had every reason to be filled with hatred for his oppressors. He could have easily been seduced by the culture of violence that had infected significant parts of the anti-apartheid movement. In a 1986 speech, Mandela's wife Winnie proclaimed, "With our necklaces, we will liberate this country." In the mid-1980s there was a wave of violence against blacks suspected of being collaborators, with "necklacing" -- the igniting of a tire doused with petrol around a victim's neck -- being the most popular form of execution. Winnie herself would be implicated later in the brutal murder of Stompie Moeketsi Seipei, a teenage anti-apartheid activist suspected by associates close to Mrs. Mandela of being an informer.

Nelson Mandela's answer to all this fury was restraint. He refused to engage in the politics of hatred and revenge. He was instrumental in the establishment of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which many came to see as a chance for catharsis for South Africa. The process turned out to be a model for countries in the throes of painful transitions. The final clause of the 1995 Interim Constitution that laid the groundwork for the Commission is worth quoting:

"This Constitution provides a historic bridge between the past of a deeply divided society characterized by strife, conflict, untold suffering and injustice, and a future founded on the recognition of human rights, democracy and peaceful co-existence and development opportunities for all South Africans, irrespective of colour, race, class, belief or sex. ... The adoption of this Constitution lays the secure foundation for the people of South Africa to transcend the divisions and strife of the past, which generated gross violations of human rights, the transgression of humanitarian principles in violent conflicts and a legacy of hatred, fear, guilt and revenge. These can now be addressed on the basis that there is a need for understanding but not for vengeance, a need for reparation but not for retaliation, a need for ubuntu but not for victimization."

With these words of wisdom -- and with Mandela's stature and moral authority -- South Africa was surely saved from civil war and a grisly new chapter of tragedy and turmoil. This, perhaps, was Mandela's greatest legacy.