National Catholic Register

Daily News

Nelson Mandela’s Checkered Legacy

COMMENTARY: The late South African politician sadly leaves behind a mixed record that includes support for abortion rights and violence. In this personal reflection, Stratford Caldecott remembers the controversial figure.


| Posted 12/10/13 at 12:59 AM

1995 Getty Sport Images

A man can achieve great things in prison. One thinks of Boethius, in classical times, writing The Consolation of Philosophy after a visit from the lady Philosophy herself while he awaits trial. Or St. Thomas More, scratching his last works with pieces of coal in the Tower of London. Or St. Maximilian Kolbe, giving witness to the greatest love by offering his life for a fellow prisoner.

Nelson Mandela, in our own time, became a symbol of resistance and hope that brought a government to its knees. Unlike many other political prisoners, he was released, and in freedom lived on as a potent symbol after becoming president of the nation he changed forever.

He was no saint, and no Boethius, but without certain qualities of personality, his release might well have triggered nothing but retribution and bloodshed.

My father fought apartheid since his student days in Cape Town, South Africa. He became president of the National Union of South African Students (NUSAS) in 1948. In 1950, there was a massive protest attended by 10,000 people in Johannesburg’s Market Square during the “Defend Free Speech” Convention. Protest marchers were fired upon. It was the intensification of a long and bitter struggle, and the prisons were soon becoming crowded.

My father moved to London in the 1950s with my mother, and they continued the intellectual struggle from there, among other exiled South Africans, both white and black. It was to be many years before he was allowed back to his homeland.

When he returned, he brought the family, so that his children could meet their South-African relatives. I remember, in 1968, watching in amazement as a railway waiting room was emptied of black people by the guards so that we could wait in comfort for our train. There was nothing we could do about it, and the black families themselves seemed, at least from my vantage point, more than willing to comply.

That same summer, Soviet tanks rolled into Prague to quell the political reforms of the Alexander Dubček-led government. The two events — the two forms of extreme oppression — are connected in my mind; connected, too, with my memories of my father’s death.

The Berlin Wall began to crumble in 1989, as he lay dying from cancer, watching events unfold on TV. The release of Mandela from Robben Island prison followed, in February 1990. My father could see it coming, but he died before the great moment.

Nelson Mandela was a hero to my father and millions of others because he represented the movement against apartheid — a policy of racial segregation introduced after the defeat of Jan Smuts in the elections of 1948. But how did a white minority so easily enforce a policy of classifying, separating and effectively brainwashing the “colored” races that vastly outnumbered them? How did they force them to enter the same buildings by different doors?

Strangest of all, why did no other political system seem even viable during all those years of public oppression?

It only makes sense if we recognize the power of the imagination, on which all political movements are founded. Years later, I was being driven through Cape Town by a relative of mine who had lived through apartheid, and we passed a perfectly normal black family on the pavement. My relative snorted, “And they want us to give the vote to that!” We see the world through the eyes of our imagination.

Nelson Mandela was seen through the imagination of others, too. Of royal ancestry, he spoke and carried himself like a prince, which perhaps made up for the frequent dullness of his rhetoric (in that sense, he was no Martin Luther King Jr.). Most people preferred to ignore the messy details of his private life and even the political contortions he had to go through to achieve his ends, including his implementation of appallingly permissive abortion legislation in South Africa in 1996. They wanted an icon to hold up against the plain evil of apartheid.

Mandela would have been more of a hero to my father if he had consistently renounced violence, including this massacre of the unborn (Mandela’s heroes were Fidel Castro and Che Guevara). After the Sharpeville massacre in 1960, where 69 black African protesters were killed and 180 were injured by police, he led the African National Congress into a period of violent rebellion. Now labeled a terrorist, the price he paid was 27 years of isolated imprisonment on Robben Island.

I wish my father could have lived to see the way things played out after Mandela’s release — a considerable act of trust on the part of F.W. de Klerk, who decided Mandela was a man of integrity — and the free elections of 1994 that installed him as South Africa’s first black president.

In the 1995 Rugby World Cup match, Mandela worked on the imagination of his people with another brilliant gesture, his support for the mostly-white national team, the Springboks, turning them into a symbol of national unity. His most original move was the creation, in the following year, of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, dedicated not to the prosecution of those deemed guilty of human-rights abuses under apartheid, but the confrontation of victims with perpetrators, giving the opportunity for repentance, amnesty and forgiveness.

In this way, Mandela himself may have escaped prosecution for complicity in a variety of crimes. But once again, it was a politics of the imagination.

Mandela inherited a country with economic potential, but there were huge disparities in wealth and access to services between white and black communities. Out of the population of 40 million, one-third was unemployed, 23 million lacked electricity or adequate sanitation and 12 million had no clean water.

Two million children were not in school, and a third of the population was illiterate. Crime rates and HIV infection were on the rise.

In such circumstances, no government could have done more than stumble towards solutions. Welfare spending increased rapidly, while liberal economic policies were introduced to encourage the investment to pay for it. It was a tightrope that pleased few, and the grand visions of an “African Renaissance” fueled by a South-African powerhouse never came to pass.

Whatever his flaws, or the vicious crimes of the organizations like the African National Congress with which he was associated, Mandela always appeared to rise above them. It is hard not to attribute this capacity to the transformation he must have gone through in the silence of his cell — an enforced retreat from which he emerged, not vengeful, not sanctified, but poised to engage in a politics of the imagination.

Stratford Caldecott is the editor of the Humanum Review

and is a research fellow at St. Benet’s Hall, University of Oxford.