Next week, three U.S. Presidents and 26 members of Congress will join over 60 world leaders, to attend the funeral of Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg. This is a remarkable outpouring of global respect for a man who led a small country (South Africa’s population was 35 million when Mandela was elected to lead it) for a short time (Mandela served one four-year term as President, then retired). It demonstrates the power of the moral life to inspire, a life which, in Mandela’s case, evidenced determination in the face of oppression, dignity in confinement, and forgiveness and reconciliation in victory.
Since his death, many commentators have cited Mandela as an exemplar of Thomas Carlyle’s theory of the “Great Man.” Carlyle, a nineteenth century Scottish writer, maintained that human progress is powered by the actions of a few heroic figures. “The history of the world is but the biography of great men,” he wrote. Carlyle’s heroic view has always been controversial. His contemporary, Herbert Spencer, deemed it childish and primitive. Spencer saw history as the product of larger, impersonal social and economic forces. These forces made the so-called Great Men more than the Great Men made history. “Before he can remake his society,” Spencer wrote of Carlyle’s hero, “his society must make him.”
The social system into which Mandela was born was a retrograde and odious system of racial separation. He spent most of his life fighting it, and when he had won, he forgave his oppressors and tried to work with them in building a new social system. It is hard to find precedents for the magnanimous course he followed after release from his 27-year imprisonment in 1990. Perhaps Abraham Lincoln, with his reconciliation plans for the defeated Confederacy, would have furnished an example, had he lived.
There was nothing predictable or inevitable about Mandela’s life and actions. He made history in the most literal sense: his choices — which were the products of his moral values –determined the course of human events in South Africa. There was far more Carlyle than Spencer in Mandela’s life story.
Carlyle’s “Great Men” are not necessarily “good” men. Mandela was not an angel, and the current frenzy of hagiography, though understandable, is unfortunate. It presents an idealized portrait that is easily refuted by history. That means that people, particularly young people, who form their impressions based on gushing contemporary commentaries, will be disappointed and possibly disillusioned when they learn more of the truth.
They will learn, for example, that Mandela was not a pacifist like Mohandas Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr. On the contrary. When Mandela joined the African National Congress (ANC), the organization was committed to non-violence. Its leader, Albert Luthuli, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize because of that commitment. But Mandela persuaded the leadership to abandon non-violence. He went on to found the ANC’s underground military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe, or Spear of the Nation. He traveled to Algeria and Ethiopia for military training. He was tried and sentenced to life in prison in 1962, not for simply opposing apartheid, but for committing acts of violent sabotage.
Nor was Mandela some kind of liberal democrat. The ANC was closely allied with the South African Communist Party. According to Bill Keller of the New York Times, Mandela himself joined the Party. Leftist ideology continues to infuse the ANC even today, which accounts in part for the country’s economic problems.
After his release from prison, Mandela partnered with South Africa’s last white President, F.W. de Klerk, on a peaceful transition away from apartheid to majority rule. But even as he was lionized around the world for advancing democracy, he was puzzling the world by consorting with dictators.
In May of 1990, three months after his release from prison, he visited Muammar Qadhafi, Libya’s late dictator, and received the ironically-named International Qadhafi Prize for Human Rights. In 1991, he traveled to Cuba and called Fidel Castro “a source of inspiration to all freedom-loving people.” In 1997, he welcomed Qadhafi to South Africa, and awarded him the Order of Good Hope, South Africa’s highest honor. In 1999, he visited Iran and laid a wreath at the tomb of the Ayatollah Khomeini.
Some of his actions were just plain loony. In 2003, during the run-up to the war in Iraq, he told the International Women’s Forum that the United States wanted to “plunge the world into a holocaust” because “Iraq produces 64% of the oil in the world” and President Bush “wants to get hold of that oil.” (For the record, Iraq, at the time, produced about 5% of the world’s oil exports.)
Of course, one can find imperfections in any of the Great Men of history. George Washington, like many of his fellow Founding Fathers, owned slaves. Winston Churchill opposed allowing women the right to vote — he was physically assaulted by a suffragette during a political appearance in Aberdeen. One can find Mandela’s actions puzzling, even disappointing, and still consider him a heroic figure.
Perhaps the clearest way to appreciate Mandela’s qualification as a Great Man is to follow Frank Capra’s idea, and imagine a world without Mandela.
One can see the impact of his absence in his native land, where his protégé Jacob Zuma serves as President, a man totally bereft of Mandela’s moral character. Zuma has alienated the business community, and has been repeatedly charged with (though not convicted of) corruption and rape. Outside South Africa, the nations of the continent — including the Central African Republic, Darfur, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Nigeria, Chad, Somalia, and Mali — are racked with tribal and religious wars, in which civilians are the primary targets. There is no Mandela in those countries, to promote reconciliation and forgiveness. In his place, there are religious fanatics, warlords, and petty dictators.
One can appreciate his stature by looking at our own country, where self-appointed civil rights leaders have pursued courses of action diametrically opposite to Mandela’s. From the Crown Heights riot to the Freddie’s Fashion Mart fire, from the Tawana Brawley fraud to the George Zimmerman trial, men like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton have made careers for themselves by creating, fostering, or intensifying racial divisions whenever and wherever possible. Reconciliation is the farthest thing from their minds because racial harmony would minimize their relevance. It is impossible to imagine a Jackson or Sharpton sitting down with a de Klerk to chart a post-racial course.
Pose the question: Where are the Mandelas of the world today? Note their absence. Then one can immediately grasp his role as a Great Man. Perhaps Carlyle went too far when he said that the history of the world is but the biography of great men. But surely the absence of great men is the misery of the world.