Watching some of the acres of BBC coverage of Nelson Mandela’s death and obsequies, the thought struck me that a great deal of it was really about us, not him: how we feel, where we were when he got out of prison, how we used to feel about apartheid, etc. He kept saying that he wasn’t a secular saint, but we have turned him into one. Peter Oborne, chief political commentator of the Daily Telegraph, even compared him to Jesus Christ. Barack Obama and Jesse Jackson turned him into an honorary hero of the civil rights movement. (The President apparently prefers not to have much to do with real Africans, including his relations in the US.) Mandela too was a real person, but he has been made over by the media into a synthesis of what we would like an African leader — or indeed a world statesman — to be. It is the same phenomenon that we witnessed when Diana, Princess of Wales, died in 1997. Although Mandela is an incomparably more important historical figure than the princess, the process by which the real person is replaced by a fantasy is no more edifying this time.
The other great statesman who died last year was, of course, Margaret Thatcher, who was stigmatised as much as Mandela was sanctified. These two contrasting world figures belonged to the same pre-war generation. Both were strongly influenced by Methodist Christianity, in Mandela’s case due to his mother, who ensured that he received an excellent education at Methodist schools in the East Cape. Both shared an appreciation of the value of hard work, self-improvement and personal integrity. Both started their political careers as lawyers, and both believed strongly in the rule of law. Both, however, accepted that there were exceptional circumstances in which, as Oliver Cromwell put it, “necessity hath no law”.
When in 1961 Mandela made the fateful decision to abandon non-violent protest, he justified it by making the case for self-defence: “The attacks of the wild beast cannot be averted with only bare hands.” He accepted responsibility for the terrorist campaign that the ANC waged from the early 1960s to the late 1980s, although he opposed more radical elements who targeted white civilians. As Irina Filatova explained in her article for Standpoint in November, Mandela was co-founder and commander-in-chief of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the ANC’s military wing. Filatova argues that the decision to switch from Gandhi-style passive resistance to guerrilla warfare was made by the South African Communist Party. Though even posthumously the myth persists that Mandela was never a Communist, in reality he could never have played the role he did without belonging not only to the Party, but being a key member of its central committee and accepting support from the Soviet Union.
As a lifelong anti-Communist and herself a terrorist target, Margaret Thatcher naturally found these affiliations troubling. She admired the English-speaking white South Africans who had done so much for the prosperity of the country, and dreaded a civil war or Soviet-backed puppet regime. She supported the arms, sport and oil embargoes, but she also sympathised with the black South Africans who would lose their jobs if the country were isolated by all-out sanctions, not to mention the British workers whose jobs depended on trade with the republic. She was irritated by the anti-apartheid campaign, not because she was a racist but because she saw it as a vehicle for left-wing agitators of all kinds.
According to her ambassador to Pretoria, Lord Renwick, Mrs Thatcher was instrumental in obtaining Mandela’s release from prison. She built up a relationship with F.W. de Klerk and backed him against others in Europe and the Commonwealth who saw him as just another Afrikaner racist. This put her in a strong position to demand that he let Mandela go. De Klerk and Mandela both wanted Mrs Thatcher on their side and she used her leverage to ensure a smooth transition to majority rule, while keeping South Africa anchored in the Western camp. Her quiet diplomacy, ignoring the cacophony around her, proved to have been a signal success, for as Renwick wrote: “She had done more to promote peaceful change in southern Africa than all her predecessors combined.” Challenged by a sneering Diane Abbott on BBC Newsnight, Renwick stood his ground.
Was Mandela Christ-like in his readiness to forgive and to be reconciled with white South Africans? The latter had dwindled from 20 per cent of the population to just 11 per cent by the end of apartheid, mainly due to emigration. Mandela was aware that white flight was not good for the economy. He also wanted his country to be accepted back as a player on the world stage. Racial revenge wasn’t really an option. And Mandela was never a racist any more than Mrs Thatcher. Indeed, he had been accused of selling out by younger Black Consciousness activists imprisoned like him on Robben Island, because he had reached a modus vivendi with the warders. The contrast was striking between Mandela and his successor, Thabo Mbeki, who promoted racial policies such as “Black Economic Empowerment”.
After his release, Mandela had his hands full reconciling his rivals, especially Chief Buthelezi, leader of the Zulu Inkatha party. Richard Dowden describes Mandela’s courage in attending a rally just before the 1994 election in Buthelezi’s heartland. He appealed over the chief’s head to King Zweletini, while reminding his audience of his own royal blood: “We are all his subjects . . . He is my king, but he is also my child. I was his father’s adviser.” In dealing with his countrymen Mandela was not so much saintly as regal-and that counted for much more. Above all, he knew when to abdicate.