from Africa in Transition

The Apotheosis of Nelson Mandela

December 09, 2013

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For many, Nelson Mandela is no longer so much an historical figure as a legend. Even his portraits in the media are now idealized, neither the image of the young radical nor of the elderly statesman. He has become the personification of all that is good with respect to South Africa’s democratic transition and journey toward racial reconciliation.

As the world-wide outpouring of emotion shows, the international community embraces him as a symbol of hope. And, according to the media, more than fifty heads of state will go to Johannesburg this week to pay tribute to him. For South Africa, now is not the time for objective analysis of his successes and failures as a politician but rather the commemoration of a national myth.

The apotheosis of a political leader can be of immense value to nations that are deeply divided. During the generations between the American Revolution and the Civil War virtually all elements of American society–North and South, East and West–invoked the memory of the legend of George Washington. During the Civil War, both Union and Confederate armies ensured that Mt. Vernon was undamaged, and both sides claimed to be Washington’s heir. After the war, shared reverence for the Washington myth played a role in national reconciliation. Nelson Mandela plays a similar role in South Africa, a country notoriously divided by race, ethnicity, class, language, and history. Yet we are seeing that virtually all South Africans–at least for the time being–are united by the Mandela myth.

There are ironies in the differences between myth and historical reality, and often the latter can be more interesting, if less useful for state-building. Apotheosis little accords with Washington’s cool Anglican deism of temperament and the compromises he made. While resident in Philadelphia and New York, he rotated his slaves so that none could claim freedom based on residence in a northern state. Similarly, Mandela, the “man of peace” and a convinced democrat, was an initiator of the “armed struggle” and allied with such notorious figures as Fidel Castro and Yasser Arafat. He also solicited and received support from Communist-front organizations during the height of the Cold War.

Important as the Mandela myth is, Mandela the human politician is of exceptional interest. In an article in Foreign Policy, I have tried to look at a few aspects of the man behind the myth.